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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

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INTRODUCTION: "Imagine a nation banishing the outside world for two centuries, crushing all vestiges of Christianity, forbidding its subjects to leave its shores on pain of death, and harbouring a deep mistrust of European ideas. The narrow window onto this nation-fortress is a walled, artificial island attached to the mainland port and manned by a handful of traders. Locked as the land-gate may be, however, it cannot prevent the meeting of minds – or hearts. The nation was Japan, the port was Nagasaki and the island was Dejima, to where David Mitchell's panoramic novel transports us in the year 1799. For one young Dutch clerk, Jacob de Zoet, a strange adventure of duplicity, love, guilt, faith and murder is about to begin – and all the while, unbeknown to the men confined on Dejima, the axis of global power is turning..."

And so was the "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet introduced last year which made it a double asap novel for me: first it's a new David Mitchell novel and second it deals with one of the most fascinating countries in history, a land which chose to try and stop the seemingly inevitable Western penetration in the 1600's by isolating itself. Of course ideas have a power by themselves and this novel shows how they were entering the inquiring Japanese minds despite all the barriers raised by the officialdom.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" stands at about 470 pages and is divided into three parts, "The Bride for Whom We Dance", "A Mountain Fastness" and the "Master of Go" for a total of 40 chapters. Each chapter heads with the location of its action and with the date Japanese style. The novel also contains several drawings either from western anatomy manuals used in Nagasaki or "done" by Jacob de Zoet.

Narrated in third person which is a change for the author who usually writes novels in first person from multiple POV's, The Thousand Autumns has three main characters - Jacob de Zoet, an idealistic and devout Dutch clerk who comes to make his fortune in the East, Uzaemon Ogawa a young Japanese samurai/translator/scientist-to-be and Orito Abigawa a Japanese midwife, daughter of a samurai and scholar who wants to be a doctor/scientist too despite the barrier of her gender - but a plethora of various others, including a slave, various Japanese nobles, an Englishman naval officer have their own pages and the author makes it completely believable and immersive.

There is a little touch of the fantastic in the novel too and of course the readers familiar with David Mitchell's work can have fun to try and decide what characters here are reincarnations of whom from the other novels of his.

ANALYSIS: "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is set in 1799-early 1800's mostly on the artificial island of Dejima that was Japan's only window to the West from the 1640's to the 1850's and which was connected to the city of Nagasaki by a simple "land gate", gate that metaphorically connects two worlds, though there is a lot of action both in Nagasaki and in its surroundings; the novel has three main interweaving threads:

1: The life and fate of Jacob de Zoet.

2: The isolation of Japan as expressed through its one window to the European world, the artificial island of Dejima.

3: A story of cross lovers, murders, abductions, secret mystical and very dark cults that gives the novel both a tinge of the fantastic and powers its action and emotional content.

The first chapter throws the reader directly into the fray, with a vivid and quite graphic description of a difficult birth in the house of the chief magistrate of Nagasaki; his favorite concubine and the baby boy are in grave peril - there is an anatomy manual diagram which shows why - but "midwife" Abigawa uses her knowledge from her father to save them and in return she is granted the boon of studying under a famous Dutch physician who works on Dejima. This will of course send her directly into the path of the newcomer Jacob de Zoet, while in parallel the strong desire for knowledge of young translator Uzaemon, makes him overlook the psalm book that the deeply devout Jacob smuggles to Dejima - all Christian literature was strictly forbidden on the island and discovery would lead to deportation - in return for borrowing Jacob's copy of Adam Smith's famous book.

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is a very complex novel that needs attention to detail since so much is packed into it, but the main storyline of the novel follows from the decisions above and a bit of past history that I will leave the reader to discover as the author hides it for a while and only slowly unfolds it.

The worldbuilding is just exquisite, both the "hothouse" atmosphere on the tiny artificial island that only the Chief Resident, his adjunct and occasionally the doctor can leave, with its little intrigues, the clerks and the regular "mates", the slaves, the Japanese handlers and spies, the concubines and even a silly monkey, and then Nagasaki and its environs, including a secluded abbey and a sinister but powerful abbot that makes his presence felt early when he comes to buy all of Jacob's quicksilver that he brought for his personal trading account.

The writing style is vintage Mitchell and it's astounding how well he handles so many voices, making you believe that you listen to a ship captain from the American South, renegade German and Irish clerks who pose as "dutch" -
in theory only Dutch nationals are allowed on Dejima but since the posting is so isolated with a three year minimum enlistment, one ship visit per year if any and no going beyond the tiny island, the Dutch take anyone that wishes to work there - Dutch merchants, Japanese nobles...

Of the main characters Jacob is quite likable though the reader can easily see that his naivety and idealism will get him into trouble with his wilier bosses and coworkers, but the two main Japanese leads, Uzaemon and Orito steal the show with the sinister abbot dominating the page whenever he appears.

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is a novel that you literally do not want to end being so engrossing and interesting, though when the ending comes it is powerful and fitting, while followed by an epilogue detailing the further fate of the main characters. There is a lot to explore in this book and it's really worth spending the time to do it; an A++ and a novel to savor at length and reread from time to time.


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