Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, January 17, 2011

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


People who know me know that while I respect David Mitchell’s considerable talents, I’m not wild about his writing. Yes, he’s a very good writer, and yes, he’s a wizard with novelistic architecture, but for me, a woman thoroughly “in love” with 19th century literature and contemporary literature that harkens back to the 19th century, there’s something lacking in Mitchell’s books. They seem to sacrifice theme and nuanced characterization and any connection to the universal to the architecture of the book. This will please the postmodernists, and Mitchell has a large following, but it makes Mitchell just not my “cup of tea.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, however, has been touted as a much more traditional book, and I do love anything involving Dutch history, so I was tempted to pick it up.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet begins in 1799, when the ginger-haired Reformed Calvinist, Jacob de Zoet, a pastor’s son from Domburg, arrives in Dejima, an artificial, walled island that lies offshore Nagasaki during Japan’s period of Sakoku. Sakoku, for those who don’t know, was the Japanese foreign relations policy that dictated a period (1633 – 1853) of isolationism. The Japanese, though, have made Dejima available as a trading post for the once formidable Dutch East India Company, and it’s at Dejima that ships unload their cargo of sugar and take aboard Japan’s prized commodity, copper. For a time, Dejima was Japan’s only point of contact with the Western world. Beyond Dejima’s land gate, there stretched a bridge to Tokugawa Shogun Japan. Only a few privileged individuals from either side were allowed to cross the bridge, the highest Dutch officials, for example. The bridge and gates are closely monitored by the Japanese, and any unauthorized interaction with the dreaded Europeans will subject a Japanese citizen to capital punishment.

Jacob de Zoet isn’t one of those privileged individuals permitted to cross the bridge from Dejima into mainland Japan. He’s a young, straight-arrow, junior clerk, sent off to Dejima by his Dutch fiancée’s father, who does not approve of the engagement, to stamp out corruption. This makes him rather unpopular even before he arrives, for corruption is flourishing among the Dutch on Dejima, and they intend for it to remain that way. For the most part, they don’t welcome anyone who upsets the status quo. Initially, Jacob is supposed to remain on Dejima for only one year, just long enough to make enough money to marry his fiancée back in Holland, and initially, that’s how Jacob hopes things will turn out. However, along the way, he finds himself penalized for his honestly and integrity, and his “one year” on Dejima turns out to be much longer. Like Blackthorne in James Clavell’s Shogun, Jacob’s destiny seems to lie on the fringes of a nation that proudly terms itself the “Land of a Thousand Autumns.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is divided into three parts, and the opening chapter put me off the book right away. It was very well written, and other readers might find it pulls them into the book, instead. It introduces the pivotal character of Orito Aibagawa, a particularly skilled midwife, with a beautiful – but burned – face. The Magistrate’s concubine is in labor and near dead from the trauma of childbirth, and it’s feared the child will be lost as well. Orito is summoned to try to save both mother and child. (Anything to do with childbirth sends me running in the opposite direction, but that’s subjective and not a reflection on Mitchell’s abilities as an author in any way. All books have opening scenes some are going to love, while others aren’t going to like so well.)

The introduction of Orito also introduces possibly the book’s finest and most developed, though minor, character, the crusty Dr. Marinus, Dejima’s resident physician. Dr. Marinus has been given leave to teach European medicine to a small group of Japanese students, one of whom just happens to be Orito. Despite his engagement to a Dutch woman, and despite the fact that no Japanese person can leave Japan and no foreigner can take up residence there, you can predict that Jacob is going to fall hopelessly in love with Orito – and he does. Dr. Marinus belittles Jacob as one of the “hundreds of...besotted white men,” and rightly tells Jacob that his love for Orito would be far better served if he simply left her alone. Jacob, however, also predictably, doesn’t listen.

The first part of the book, which introduces more than one hundred characters – Dutch traders, Malay and Ceylonese servants, a Yankee sea captain, a cardsharp cook, and various and assorted other drifters, is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s sea tales set in the Far East, and it seems like the book’s going to be a fairly straightforward historical narrative, a novel of political intrigue, a clash of cultures with the one place that managed to keep all other cultures at bay. And this, at least to me, was an interesting premise. However, Mitchell, for reasons unknown, doesn’t choose to explore that premise in great depth. Instead, it seems like he was more inclined to change horses in midstream.

When Orito is abducted on the orders of the sinister Abbot Enomoto and taken to the mountainous Shinto Shrine of Shiranui, a place of unspeakable horror, and whose dozen inmates are always marred by some sort of physical defect, the book takes on a decidedly different flavor – that of the Gothic and the supernatural and sometimes the silly. Orito’s translator, Uzaemon, who is also in love with her and ardently wishes to be her husband, begins plotting the rescue of this “damsel in distress.” Now, the historical novel we thought we were reading – and the Dutch – have been left far behind, and the point of view shifts to the Japanese characters. At times, the second part of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet even reads like a script straight out of a superheroes movie, with lines like, “Why do you mortal gnats suppose that your incredulity matters?”

Although this middle section seemed out-of-place to me, I understand why Mitchell wanted to include it. Several years ago, while still composing this story, he told a Japanese newspaper, “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives.” In all fairness, I suppose they are, though I wish his biculturalism wouldn’t have consisted of a “bodice-ripping rescue-and-romance.” For me, it detracted from the book, and I wish Mitchell would have presented the Japanese point-of-view in a way more attuned to the historical novel with which he began.

The third part of The Thousand Autumn of Jacob de Zoet, during which the British arrive in Nagasaki harbor, needs to tie the first and second parts together, but Mitchell adds new voices to the story, making the final effect rather confused and confusing and chaotic.

Although Mitchell seemed to be writing a far more conventional/traditional novel with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet than he has with his previous work, it also seems he had a hard time deciding just what he wanted this book to be. Was it a historical novel, replete with a morass of detail, as part one would suggest; was it a bodice ripping Gothic romance as part two seems to indicate; or was it a fable, complete with elements of magical realism? I don’t know, but I wish I did. Maybe Mitchell wanted to combine all three into one book, but if that’s the case, it’s my opinion that his structure and theme aren’t strong enough to sustain all of that.

Those of you who’ve read Mitchell’s other works know that he’s most famous for his manipulation of novelistic structure and architecture. I think in his preoccupation with a book’s architecture, Mitchell often gives characterization short shrift, and so it is in this book. The “bad guys” are all bad, while the “good guys” are all good. There are very few nuances and shades of gray in this novel, something I really missed. In fact, the characters seem to be more plot devices than fully fleshed out persons. And while Jacob, himself isn’t wholly likable (it isn’t necessary for him to be wholly likable), he’s too passive. He’s a character caught in the middle of things. He can’t stop the corruption in Dejima, and he shouldn’t actively pursue his love for Orito. What’s left?

The prose is okay, but in my opinion, just okay. Mitchell rarely writes in the third person, and his use of that point-of-view in this book can seem awkward at times, like he wasn’t really comfortable with it. I also wasn’t thrilled with his choice to use dialogue broken by speech tags. Oh, a little of it would have been fine, but a little of that kind of thing goes a long, long way, and Mitchell seemed to use these speech tags in just about every sentence. For example, “Who was that bizarre female,” van Cleef squeezes a lemon into a Venetian glass, “in Warehouse Doorn?” Too much of that kind of thing, and there is too much of that kind of thing is this book, gets to be very annoying very fast.

Mitchell often uses short chapters, presumably to propel his reader into the next chapter. This made the book read more like a mass market thriller to me than literary fiction. And while some of the paragraphs are terribly short, some are terribly long. The ones featuring the bawdy dialect of the sailors became difficult to read. And why, for goodness sake, does Mitchell feel the need to insert a sailor groaning and straining at his “morning constitutional” while explaining the poetic meaning of the book’s title? Sure, we know everyone has a “daily constitutional,” but there really are some things that are better left to the imagination than written down.

As mentioned above, I thought the relatively minor character of Dr. Marinus was the best drawn in the book, but even here, Mitchell either makes a mistake (not likely) or he’s setting up the crusty Marinus for his next book (he’s said he will feature Marinus in a book of his own set in the present day), for Dr. Marinus quotes both Kubla Khan and Shangri-La. The former wasn’t published until 1816, while the latter was published in 1933. This made me wonder if Dr. Marinus was going to turn out to be a time traveler or something similar, something that would not be unheard of for Mitchell.

My favorite part of the book was the single chapter, told from the point-of-view of a Malay slave named Moses, and also, interestingly, told in the first person. Moses seemed to be the only character in the book not afraid to explore the depths of life, to look life squarely in the face and see, not only the good, but the bad as well, and to contemplate on its possible meaning. He was the only character whose dialogue had any all-important subtext:

Master Fischer owns my body, then, but he does not own my mind. This I know, because of a test. When I shave Master Fischer, I imagine slitting open his throat. If he owned my mind, he would see this evil thought. But instead of punishing me, he just sits there with his eyes shut.

Moses, perhaps, embodies the theme of this book as he thinks about what it means to have everything – your days, your family, your skin, owned by someone else, until the only refuge you can find is in creating “a mind like an island...protected by a deep blue sea.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet isn’t vintage Mitchell, and his fans will no doubt love the book or be terribly disappointed in it. And though it’s not vintage Mitchell, it’s not traditional, either, and it won’t completely satisfy the more traditional readers out there. It’s certainly not Mitchell’s masterpiece – that I believe, is still Cloud Atlas – but it’s okay for those looking for a change of pace. Just don’t get your hopes up too high.

3.5/5

Recommended: Mitchell fans are going to love this book or feel disappointed in it, but those who don’t care for Mitchell probably won’t find the traditional novel in this book that they’ve been looking for. On the other hand, those who haven’t read Mitchell before might be inclined to give this book more leeway.

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