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The Thousand Autumns of Jabob de Zoet – David Mitchell

July 11, 2011

I first heard about David Mitchell years ago. Like all of my great reading in the past couple of years, its origins are rooted in my high school english teacher – a lover of good books, a brutal critic of bad books. I learned a lot from her, allowing me to understand what I am reading; admittedly, she is a far more specific critic than I will ever be. Nonetheless, her constant references to the books that were currently in her hands always intrigued me. I should read that – I said to myself. And then I can seem smart, because I will have done something adults do. Read.

All of this is ultimately tangential, but it suggests that there is something poetic to me arriving at David Mitchell, even if it is six or seven years later. She had been reading Cloud Atlas, and was using it to highlight novel structure (she outlined the structure of that novel on a board and compared it with that of Pride and Prejudice – we were all a little too beleaguered to completely follow her admittedly.)

I chose to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for no reason other than that it was the David Mitchell option available at the library and I had been admiring his name at the book store for months and for some reason chosen to exercise some degree of restraint (why I chose to restrain myself from Mr. Mitchell rather than, say, Carol Birch, is up for a great deal of discussion). Ultimately, I am not even remotely disappointed by my selection.

The story of Jacob de Zoet is entirely fictional. Set on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay during the Edo Period (particularly the late 1790s and 1800s) of the Shogun Era, it is filled to the brim with many characters – all of whom remain memorable throughout the story. Each becomes a characature, particularly those who, like Jacob, are brought to Dejima to work by the Dutch East India Company. Dejima is the only source of outside trading in Japan during the Edo Period, which not only restricts the access of the Japanese to the Dutch but also vice versa. Jacob and his European compatriots (and their slaves) are stuck.

What is quite remarkable about this entire novel is that everything feels like it is being discovered for the first time, by eyes that want to comprehend the formality of another culture. Every peek at the outside world feels like a moment of bliss – every moment of being restricted on Dejima feels like a lifetime in prison. This effect proves to be one of the book’s strongest achievements – it becomes a tome of anthropological study as much as a story of lives working within the strict world of Edo Japan to make their wishes come true.

Jacob is brought to the island by the DEI Company to resolve the books – he is an auditor looking into accusations laid against the trading post’s previous administrators. The first part of the novel revolves around the construction of his character and those of his co-workers, who, it must be said, are non-too-happy about the work he is doing. His character is tested a great deal when he is asked to become a part of the system of corruption by cooking the books; to the reader it is little surprise that he refuses to. This moment is the point at which the novel truly picks up.

Of course there is romance in this novel, and a crime which is difficult to comprehend in the extent of its evil.  Unfortunately, while I was reading, I found it difficult to really recognize the enormity of this evil – Mr. Mitchell, would it not have been easier as a reader if I were to have reads the creeds myself? – and yet I felt it pounding in on the story.

Mitchell’s greatest achievement is two-fold; first in the intricate weaving of this story, which has several strands that wrap into its thread. You see the importance of Dejima to Japan and of Japan to Dejima – you feel the tension of two cultures warring with each other but who are absolutely dependent on each other – you recognize how much Jacob de Zoet is hated – you realize the power of Abbot Enomoto like a great cloak that covers the light when he walks into the room. Second is the intricate weaving of themes; loyalty being primary, but Mitchell is always asking us who it is that we should be loyal to. Our son, or our not-yet wife, or our Shogun. And to which extent? When do we recognize our own refusal, and how does it manifest itself? Each of these, an idea or theme all of its own in any other modern novel, feeds into the enormity of the primary idea of the novel: loyalty is never as easy as one wants it to be. Jacob de Zoet and his friend Ogawa Uzaemon (perhaps one of the most enjoyable characters in the novel) serve to outline this balance perfectly.

All of this is wrapped in the beautiful language of a prolific and capable writer:

“The bed shakes its sleeper awake; two of its legs snap, tipping Jacob onto the floor, whacking his jaw and knee. Merciful Christ is his first thought. The Shenandoah’s magazine is exploded. But the spasm seizing Tall House grows stronger and faster. Joists groan; plaster patters like grapeshot; a window casement flies from its mount and the lurching room is lit apricot; the mosquito net enwraps Jacob’s face and the unappeasable violence is magnified threefold, fivefold, tenfold, and the bed drags itself across the room like a wounded beast. A frigate, or a man-of-war, is unloosing a broadside, Jacob thinks. A candlestick hops in dithyrambic circles; sheaves of paper from high shelves swoop in loops. Don’t let me die here, Jacob prays, seeing his skull smashed under beams and yolky bains dashed in Dejima’s dust. Prayer grips the pastor’s nephew, raw-throated prayer, to the Jehovah of the early Psalms: O God, Thou hast cast me off, Thou hast scattered us, Thou hast been displeased; O Turn Thyself to us again! Jacob is answered by roof tiles smashing on Long Street and cows lowing and goats bleating. Thou hast made the earth to tremble; Thou hast broken it; heal the breaches thereof; for it shaketh. Glass panes shatter into false diamonds, timber cracks like bones, Jacob’s sea chest is tossed by undulating plants, the water jug spills and the chamber pot is upended and Creation herself is being undone and God God God, he implores, bid it cease bid it cease bid it cease!

Impressively, Mitchell seems to understand Japan in the Edo Period incredibly well. I’ve taken a few courses on Japanese history, and it is quite unique as a nation (and, if you’re interested, very intriguing). The stories of samurai, the myths constructing the spirituality, the rogue Christians, the absolute loyalty to the Shogun, the formality of a translation house, the spies, the rise of the merchant class and the slow fall of the samurai class (and the disconnect between reality and social hierarchy that evolves) – everything here seems to have been recreated authentically. Very well done, Mr. Mitchell – very well researched, and, particularly, very well realized.

I will say that there are moments when the novel falls a little short. Part two is by far the weakest, despite centering on a horrifying crime, the real tension develops in part one and part three where two cultures are battling with each other and Jacob de Zoet is making his enemies (and, it turns out, his admirers).  Also, at times the dialogue feels choppy – not in the words are spoken, but in the way it is written. A sentence is started, and then halfway through the sentence is interrupted (at an entirely illogical point when you consider word flow) to introduce the speaker, and then the sentence is finished. It frequently interrupts the flow of the reader. And yet there were moments where it fit the dialogue – it perfected the pacing, and the voice, and fit the character of the scene. Dialogue is a unique challenge as a writer, because it is difficult to be clear about who is speaking while still providing an experience similar to that experienced in the everyday of the reader – this was an interesting way around that challenge with some noted successes and some noted follies.

One review of David Mitchell’s work thus far has equated his novels, their plotting and their overlapping themes, with those of Tolstoy. I’ve never completed Tolstoy, but I can say that the development of set pieces in the first half of the novel reminded me of the characters that were being illustrated in Tolstoy. You were putting in hard, enjoyable work, and you knew it would pay off (or at least, you knew this with Tolstoy – I went into the Mitchell quite blind to this promise). The ultimate result  is a very, very intriguing story, with potentially some of the most faithfully and comprehensively developed themes that I have seen in contemporary fiction. Though not perfect, I can do nothing other than recommend it – and wish, as always, that I had enjoyed this book with a group of friends who were interested in discussing its story and themes and history. I will come back to this novelist, and perhaps back to this novel – it is a wonder of structure and pacing and plot development.

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