Thursday, 13 May 2010

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

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"Japan, 1799; Jacob de Zoet arrives on Dejima in Nagasaki harbour. For over 150 years this artificial island, manned by the Dutch East India Company, has been the only point of contact between Japan and Europe. The foreign traders are forbidden to leave the island whilst the Japanese may not travel beyond their native land. Yet through the porthole of Dejima the new learning of the Enlightenment seeps into the Shogun's cloistered realm while tales of a mysterious land seep out.

"As a junior clerk, de Zoet's task is to uncover evidence of the previous Chief Resident's malpractice. Ostracised by his compatriots, he befriends a local interpreter and becomes drawn to one of the few women on the island, a midwife with a scarred face who is granted persmission to study under the Company physician. But in the battles for surpremacy on Dejima and the mainland, and between the Dutch and British on the high seas, trust is betrayed and loyalties are tested to breaking point."

Edo-era Japan does not want the world - a brush with preaching Portuguese missionaries hundreds of years before the events of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has seen to that - and yet the world wants it. The country's copper reserves are at the turn of the 18th century a sun-flecked siren song to Enlightened nations all around the globe, but Japan, tribal and staunchly traditionalist to the end, tolerates only a single point of contact with the other. Dejima is "a high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island, some two hundred paces along its outer curve... by eighty paces deep," and it is in these claustrophobic confines that Jacob de Zoet must make a life for himself.

A junior clerk when David Mitchell's fifth book begins, de Zoet is a righteous Zeelander bullied by his prospective father-in-law into bettering his prospects on a five-year assignment with the Dutch traders who have arrived at an anxious accord with the Japanese. De Zoet is to spend his time on Dejima drafting an account of the corruption of the previous Chief Resident, but with his hands tied personally and politically, communication a chore and on an isolated island where he finds the selfsame corruption he has been tasked to investigate utterly pervasive, his orders seem impossible. The hands and slaves despise what their interlocutor stands for; Dejima's intellectuals keep their distance from de Zoet's feeble attempts at a dialogue; and those of the lowly clerk's superiors who are not immediately dismissive of him are perhaps as crooked as their court-martialed predecessor.

And then de Zoet goes and falls in love.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is, firstly, a beautiful book, with an evocative, ethereal title and - here in the UK, at least - a striking cover of burnished blues courtesy of Leicester-born artist Joe Wilson. Indeed, Mitchell's fifth full-length fiction is a thing of beauty through and through, from the strictly superficial, as above, through to the more considered. His descriptive prose, a rare pleasure though it is amid the cacophony of languages and chatter and perspectives that are among the defining features of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is wrought of the very finest stuff. "Silver birches shiver," the babe whose troubled birth begins this hypnotic narrative is "a boiled-pink despot" and a river "is a drunk, charging boulders and barging banks." What with all the other factors in play there's not often room for Mitchell's exquisite narration, but when the masterful voice of the oft-nominated though never yet triumphant Man Booker prize favourite at last comes through unadorned, it's near-enough impossible not to notice.

In terms of the Booker, at least, the odds are that this'll be Mitchell's year: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is 500 pages of unadulterated literary craftsmanship. The novel's narrative, though largely confined to a single location, is breathtakingly expansive, far-reaching and intimate all at once. Its characters run the gamut from religious to righteous to repulsive; each have their own wry or tragic tales to tell and their own distinct lilt to tell them in. And Dejima... wonderful, bounteous Dejima... why, I could devote an entire essay to the remarkable setting of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet alone. The island positively sings, and what we are allowed to see of its forbidden surrounding area - in particular the shrine of Shiranui, to whose halls of horror the object of poor lovelorn de Zoet's prohibited passion is spirited away - is no less extraordinary. But while Mitchell's latest is an easy book to admire - its beauty is unequivocal - it's a harder thing to truly love; though in the end, love it you will.

Let me explain. The early-going of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is tremendously promising: a belated birth which begets the presence of Orito Aibagawa on Dejima before the arrival of her awkward would-be suitor and the trial of the trading port's previous Chief Resident makes for an exciting and pleasantly confounding start. But the introductions to Dejima's residents come thick and fast thereafter, and though dodgy dealer Arie Grote, who "has a grin full of holes and a hat made of shark-hide," assures us that we need not remember every one of the island's myriad characters right off the bat, it's difficult not to feel little left behind as the revolving doors of de Zoet's hovel in Tall House go round and round again. Once the catch-up's over, the entertainment - and what rowdy entertainment it is - begins in earnest... only to come to an abrupt anti-climax at the end of the narrative's first act, whereupon de Zoet - the filter through which we have seen and begun an understanding Dejima and its alien environs, not to mention the who's-who of characters roaming about its seductive streets - de Zoet practically vanishes into the background, and Mitchell strands us with nary a word of explanation in a new place, with new people and no-one to make the necessary introductions.

The overwhelming feeling this turn of events leaves one with is of isolation; absolute isolation. And it's devastating. Of course, the sense of isolation serves a pivotal purpose, but reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has been an exercise in intense concentration up to this point, its rewards self-evident and plentiful, but at the outset of book two, when the game changes and you need it more than ever, the boisterous pacing that has driven the demanding narrative so far rather stutters. Things pick up soon enough; gratefully, Mitchell doesn't leave you floundering too long, and from there on out the narrative only ups the stakes.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet starts brilliantly, then, and concludes with an equally memorable flourish, and though its middle third sags somewhat, it is to Mitchell's credit that he handily defends his narrative from any notion of meandering with a clarity of purpose that, obfuscated at first, reveals itself in time - and to great effect. Lively and lovely, powerfully intelligent, rich in character and practically obscene in the boundless generosity of its setting, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet might try your patience for a moment, but even at its lowest ebb, Mitchell's latest is never less than a remarkable read.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
May 2010, Sceptre

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  1. I want this. I want this so bad.

  2. But do you want this, or The Prince of Mist?

    The Zafon will entertain you for an hour and a half, if you're lucky; The Thousand Autumns will awe you for weeks at a stretch. One makes for a nice palette-cleanser for the other, though - I won't say which...

  3. The Prince of Mist has been acquired and will be consumed with haste. I've still got to figure out how to get my hands on a copy of this one.

    I'm such a sucker for Japanese lore, culture and history.

  4. very late to the party here, but just finished the book. first thing i did was look up your review (have seen glanced at it before) and appreciate your point of view. the prose was beautiful, the characters vivid. and yet...there was something about the book that has left me...dissatisfied. perhaps it was because i never viscerally 'felt' the romance that compels so much of the book and forms the ending. i'll need to think about it. and that isn't to say i'm not interested in mitchell; on the contrary after this first exposure, i'll likely read whatever he publishes next. perhaps my opinion, as sometimes happen, when i see how much the story stays with me.