Saturday, January 10, 2015

David Mitchell's "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet": Book Review

Certainly, the ambitious tales David Mitchell tells, by this his fifth novel, involve dreams, culture clashes, and searches for immortality, creepy or seductive. As parts of "Ghostwritten" and "Cloud Atlas" took place in Asia, so "Number 9 Dream" emerged within Japan. As with "Cloud," a British adventurer and Low Countries contexts appear, and as with "Black Swan Green," a study of an empire at war hovers in the margins, and here these contexts become the center stage, 1800 Nagasaki.

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" follows an ordinary Zeelander clerk in the employ of the Dutch East India Company to Japan, to clean up the books of Dejima, the trading outlet kept apart from the Japanese mainland, an outlet in the harbor, for the rulers strive to keep Christian impacts away, after the natives had eradicated the converts from well over a century earlier (Shusaku Endo's "Silence" (Amazon; see blog) powerfully conveys this era, when Portuguese Jesuits tried to colonize the proud islands.)

Mitchell opens this novel with one of two great set-pieces, a childbirth operation and then a removal of a bladder stone, with graphic imagery, tense medical action, and well-elaborated, gruesome details. His research, as with the many stories told by sailors pressed into Dutch service, adds verisimilitude. I admit the title does not seem to apply: "a thousand autumns" sounds nice, but it doesn't match the duration. The pace moves cleanly, and Mitchell as with his other novels does not show off his prose. He employs it diligently to elaborate characters in believable fashion, and he juggles a lot of factual knowledge that must be inserted into the narrative adroitly, although a few scenes find even garrulous sailors or conniving diplomats reciting lengthy explanations that seem to stretch credulity just a bit.

You get to know those on the ship gradually, and like Jacob, you are introduced step-by-step to the predicament faced by the Dutch traders as forces on the mainland and in Britain encircle their outpost. Mitchell keeps the pace of this sprawling historical narrative relatively brisk. The first parts alternate between Jacob and a Ogawa, a Japanese noble, for reasons that I cannot divulge, but which draw in Orito, a midwife, and a mysterious monastery with suitably eerie rituals and menacing presence. Mitchell enjoys the machinations that he sets in motion, and you will too, in a old-fashioned story full of longing, adventure, backstabbing, and court intrigue. While some parts slow down, the latter third, as one key character's fate is left dramatically hanging, opens up more perspectives, such as the slaves, and allows one to see more into both the Japanese setting often left at a distance from the Dutch and onboard the British vessel which enters to complicate matters far more.

It's always fun to trace character lineages from novel to novel in Mitchell. Here, I caught an ancestor of "Number 9" protagonist Eiyi Miyake, a housekeeper from the same island whom Orito knows. Also, Mo Muntervary of "Ghostwritten" finds a Co. Cork ancestor who roams very far from Ireland.

Suffice to say that this remained a lively, often tense, story. I might have trimmed a bit from the final chapter, which felt compressed and rushed, although Mitchell limns mortality well in more than one character's brave fate, and he hones a deft touch which expresses emotion and ethics insightfully. He does not preach, but he lets moral considerations come forward as the characters debate their fates, and he enriches an expansive story when in many parts you have no idea what happens next with a reflection on enduring themes of loyalty, fidelity, aspiration, and determination: always relevant ones.
(Amazon US 5-27-14)

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