The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas is in my top five all-time favourite books. I also really liked Ghostwritten, so I don’t know why I took so long to delve into David Mitchell’s other works. I suppose I liked the science fiction elements in those two novels and was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy his books so much without them; I still like the Iain M. Banks sci-fi more than the Iain Banks mainstream fiction. I was wrong to leave it so long; I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and am now energised to make my way through Mitchell’s back catalogue.
This novel takes place as the 18th century turns into the 19th, primarily on the tiny man-made island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. The Dutch have sole trading rights with the isolationist Empire of Japan and Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk who has travelled to Dejima to make some money before returning to his home in the Netherlands to marry his sweetheart Anna. In Dejima he meets Orito, a scarred yet alluring young midwife, who is being controversially trained in the art of medicine by the enigmatic Doctor Marinus. Taking place over decades, Jacob eventually discovers a dark secret at the heart of the local Japanese power yet in his position is powerless to do anything about it.
Despite taking place primarily in one very small location, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet feels like an epic. As I’ve been finding a lot with historical fantasy lately, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tickled my fantasy bone. What Mitchell captures so wonderfully is just how mysterious and enigmatic a challenge Japan presented to the colonialist view of the East. English and Dutch attitudes to non-white people are made very clear in this novel through some truly nauseating treatment of African slaves and they speak with regular dripping content for Asian people as well. The English and Dutch were fairly used to conquering outside Europe with impunity, until they come to Japan and find a formidable nation that wants very little to do with them and could repel them without too much difficulty. Mitchell manages a fine balance between preserving a sense of mystery in Japan while avoiding the suspect Orientalist simplistic depiction of the East as a magical fantasy for Western consumption. There’s a strong element of magic realism in the whole thing, with Mitchell throwing a few very subtle hints our way that his universe isn’t necessarily one of purely rational science and that forces and energies exist outside our understanding. Mitchell is brilliant at confounding expectations about what a ‘mainstream’ novel should contain. I mean, one of Ghostwritten’s protagonists was an ancient incorporeal being. How cool is that? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet isn’t as brazen as that, but it’s possibly cleverer, managing that fine trick of managing to make a story feel both intimate and epic. This is my favourite way to construct a story and Mitchell does it with aplomb.
Another element of Mitchell’s writing I love is his willingness to vary tone and master a variety of styles. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet had some seriously moving moments, some moments or pure tension and yes, some laugh out loud comedy. Again, he does this in a less obvious way than the fractured narratives of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, but this marvellously successful attempt at being a literary jack-of-all-trades is probably my favourite thing about Mitchell’s writing. There’s a description of Nagasaki towards the end that slips into poetry, but it didn’t feel jarring or pretentious, it just felt right, perfectly pitched.
Jacob de Zoet is a protagonist that it’s hard not to root for and he’s surrounded by an interesting and likeable cast. My favourite was the plain spoken Chief van Cleef of the Dutch trading mission; I enjoyed his lack of pretention and straight talking, with the Japanese characters also being well developed. The sinister Abbot Enomoto is a great character and Orito is an excellent love interest.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet moved, amused and entertained me more than I was perhaps expecting. For some reason I’d had it in my head that Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were flukes; I’m happy to be proven wrong. I think I have another author whose back catalogue I’m going to obsessively consume! Hooray!