Turning Japanese, 19th Century Style
It’s been a hell of a career. David Mitchell is one of the UK’s most outstanding writers, leavening his literary prowess with a dazzling, self-conscious structure in Ghostwritten, crime fiction and thriller tropes in Number9Dream, historical drama and sci-fi dystopia in Cloud Atlas. That book, which received much-deserved praise from all quarters, featured a structure that some found gimmicky but I, at least, thought brilliant: a series of interconnected stories told over a huge span of historical eras, with each story broken into two halves and interrupted midway through by the next. In the first half of the book, the reader begins the stories in serial fashion; in the second half of the book, the disparate plots resolve themselves one after another.
There are few such literary pyrotechnics on display in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but this makes it no less of a success. In fact, some might argue that the lack of attention-grabbing authorial cleverness is, in fact, the work of a more accomplished writer. No matter which side of the debate you land on, this is an extraordinarily powerful book, a triumph of the storyteller’s ability to create a world and place the reader in it.
The year is 1799, and the Dutch East India Company is engaged in trade with the Far East. The port of Nagasaki is an important gateway to both Japan’s markets and its natural resources, but the emperor of this intensely private land has forbidden foreigners from touching native soil. Nor is any Japanese allowed to leave. To work around this awkward injunction, the Dutch have built Dejima, an artificial island a hundred yards long, in which Dutch sailors and traders representing the company are housed. It’s as much a prison as a warehouse, and staffed with a variety of unsavory characters, whose varied stories are told as the novel progresses.
Enter Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk whose five-year contract will leave him, he hopes, with enough cash and standing to return to Holland and marry his fiancee. Jacob, a parson’s son, believes that it is possible to be both honest and profitable, but his naïvete doesn’t last long. Dejima is full of schemers and scoundrels, not all of whom are Dutch.
Jacob befriends the elderly Dr. Marinus and becomes infatuated with Miss Aibagawa, a scar-faced young Japanese woman who, most unusually, has received training as a midwife. Through a series of squirmingly awkward encounters, Jacob becomes preoccupied with the young woman and tries to deepen his acquaintance with her.
Just as the reader settles into the expected twists and setbacks of a conventional love story, a radically new element is introduced, involving a shady order of monks and a convent whose practices are revealed incrementally until their full horror is understood. Jacob’s interpreter, Ogawa, becomes involved in this storyline, and this section is as riveting as any thriller. Similarly, when Miss Aibagawa takes center stage for the central portion of the book, Mitchell reveals his skill at inhabiting a woman’s consciousness as skillfully as he inhabits a man’s.
Ultimately, that is the most astonishing aspect of this astonishing work. Having created a thoroughly believable worldview—that of an 18th century Dutch imperialist—the author then folds it into the world of Dejima, which is in turn subsumed by the equally foreign and inscrutable world of a Japanese monastary, which is only one aspect of the larger society. All these layers are reflected through the consciousness of men and women both Dutch and Japanese. The book is a constantly shifting virtuoso act of fully realized points of view.
Besides all that, it’s got plot by the wagonload. The situation grows dire on Djemina for a variety of reasons, and the British version of the East India Company isn’t above taking advantage of a rival’s weakness for its own gain. The fates of Jacob, his friend Ogawa and Miss Aibagawa are all interconnected with the events of this wider world.
Mitchell remains playful in his prose, often alternating one-sentence narration with single lines of dialogue, creating a kind of dual-voiced conversation at pivotal moments. Elsewhere he allows characters to ramble on uninterrupted for pages at a time, spilling out their life stories as if afraid this is the only chance they’ll have. On the sentence level, though, Mitchell doesn’t call attention to his prose.
“Hatless and broiling in his blue dress coat, Jacob de Zoet is thinking of a day ten months ago, when a vengeful North Sea charged the dykes at Domburg, and spindrift tumbled along Church Street, past the parsonage where his uncle presented him with an oiled canvas bag.” There is plenty of information conveyed in that sentence, but nothing to impress the reader with cleverness and wordplay—or as some might call it, gimmickry.
This novel might be Mitchell’s greatest achievement thus far in a career full of them; certainly the last few pages are as emotionally powerful as anything he has done. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a testament to the power of storytelling. I don’t expect to read a better book this year.