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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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By the New York Times bestselling author of The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas | Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the most influential novelists in the world. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which ...
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Overview

By the New York Times bestselling author of The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas | Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the most influential novelists in the world. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which preceded it.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a stunning departure for this brilliant, restless, and wildly ambitious author, a giant leap forward by even his own high standards. A bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history, it is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland.

But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings. As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?”

A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author.

Praise for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
 
“A page-turner . . . [David] Mitchell’s masterpiece; and also, I am convinced, a masterpiece of our time.”—Richard Eder, The Boston Globe
 
“An achingly romantic story of forbidden love . . . Mitchell’s incredible prose is on stunning display. . . . A novel of ideas, of longing, of good and evil and those who fall somewhere in between [that] confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive.”—Dave Eggers, The New York Times Book Review
 
“The novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale . . . an epic of sacrificial love, clashing civilizations and enemies who won’t rest until whole family lines have been snuffed out.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
 
“By any standards, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a formidable marvel.”—James Wood, The New Yorker
 
“A beautiful novel, full of life and authenticity, atmosphere and characters that breathe.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A page-turner . . . [David] Mitchell’s masterpiece; and also, I am convinced, a masterpiece of our time.”—Richard Eder, The Boston Globe
 
“An achingly romantic story of forbidden love . . . Mitchell’s incredible prose is on stunning display. . . . A novel of ideas, of longing, of good and evil and those who fall somewhere in between [that] confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive.”—Dave Eggers, The New York Times Book Review
 
“The novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale . . . an epic of sacrificial love, clashing civilizations and enemies who won’t rest until whole family lines have been snuffed out.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
 
“By any standards, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a formidable marvel.”—James Wood, The New Yorker
 
“A beautiful novel, full of life and authenticity, atmosphere and characters that breathe.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR

From the Hardcover edition.

Ron Charles
…[Mitchell] startles us again with a rich historical romance set in feudal Japan, an epic of sacrificial love, clashing civilizations and enemies who won't rest until whole family lines have been snuffed out. Yes, the novelist who's been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale. It's not too early to suggest that Mitchell can triumph in any genre he chooses.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Mitchell’s rightly been hailed as a virtuoso genius for his genre-bending, fiercely intelligent novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Now he takes something of a busman’s holiday with this majestic historical romance set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, where young, naïve Jacob de Zoet arrives on the small manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor as part of a contingent of Dutch East Indies officials charged with cleaning up the trading station’s entrenched culture of corruption. Though engaged to be married in the Netherlands, he quickly falls in hopeless love with Orito Aibagawa, a Dutch-trained Japanese midwife and promising student of Marinus, the station’s resident physician. Their “courtship” is strained, as foreigners are prohibited from setting foot on the Japanese mainland, and the only relationships permitted between Japanese women and foreign men on Dejima are of the paid variety. Jacob has larger trouble, though; when he refuses to sign off on a bogus shipping manifest, his stint on Dejima is extended and he’s demoted, stuck in the service of a vengeful fellow clerk. Meanwhile, Orito’s father dies deeply in debt, and her stepmother sells her into service at a mountaintop shrine where her midwife skills are in high demand, she soon learns, because of the extraordinarily sinister rituals going on in the secretive shrine. This is where the slow-to-start plot kicks in, and Mitchell pours on the heat with a rescue attempt by Orito’s first love, Uzaemon, who happens to be Jacob’s translator and confidant. Mitchell’s ventriloquism is as sharp as ever; he conjures men of Eastern and Western science as convincingly as he does the unscrubbed sailor rabble. Though there are more than a few spots of embarrassingly bad writing (“How scandalized Nagasaki shall be, thinks Uzaemon, if the truth is ever known”), Mitchell’s talent still shines through, particularly in the novel’s riveting final act, a pressure-cooker of tension, character work, and gorgeous set pieces. It’s certainly no Cloud Atlas, but it is a dense and satisfying historical with literary brawn and stylistic panache. (July)
Time
The most consistenly interesting novelist of his generation.
Christian Science Monitor
When a Dutch trader falls in love with a Japanese midwife who is also the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor in 19th-century Japan, you can be sure that the emotional and cultural clashes will be significant. THE THOUSAND AUTUMS OF JACOB DE ZOET is a historical romance novel by David Mitchell, gifted author of "Cloud Atlas" and "Black Swan Green." Here, Mitchell melds history and literature into a satisfying blend.
Booklist
Despite the audacious scope, the focus remains intimate; each fascinating character has the opportunity to share his or her story. Everything is patched together seamlessly and interwoven with clever wordplay and enlightening historical details on feudal Japan. First-rate literary fiction and a rousing good yarn, too.
Dave Eggers
If any readers have doubted that David Mitchell is phenomenally talented and capable of vaulting wonders on the page, they have been heretofore silent. Mitchell is almost universally acknowledged as the real deal. His best-known book, Cloud Atlas, is one of those how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it? modern classics that no doubt is—and should be—read by any student of contemporary fiction…[The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet] confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive.
The New York Times Book Review
James Atlas
By any standards, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a formidable marvel.
The New Yorker
Michiko Kakutani
David Mitchell has traded in the experimental, puzzlelike pyrotechnics of Ghostwritten and Number9Dream for a fairly straight-ahead story line and a historical setting. He's meticulously reconstructed the lost world of Edo-era Japan, and in doing so he's created his most conventional but most emotionally engaging novel yet: it's as if an acrobatic but show-offy performance artist, adept at mimicry, ventriloquism and cerebral literary gymnastics, had decided to do an old-fashioned play and, in the process, proved his chops as an actor.
The New York Times
Library Journal
Two-time Man Booker Prize nominee Mitchell's fifth novel is an outstanding historical epic that brings to life early 19th-century xenophobic Japan. Divided into five parts, it opens with the title character's stint on the quarantined Dutch outpost of Dejima, where he falls in love with a local midwife who is later sold into service to pay off her late father's debts. British actors Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox maintain order amid this swirling narrative populated by myriad colorful characters. Though some of the passages are a bit awkward, this book will nonetheless interest Mitchell devotees and fans of history-based adventures. [The New York Times best-selling Random hc received a starred review, LJ 4/15/10.—Ed.]—Denise A. Garofalo, Mount Saint Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY
Kirkus Reviews
Another Booker Prize nomination is likely to greet this ambitious and fascinating fifth novel-a full-dress historical, and then some-from the prodigally gifted British author (Black Swan Green, 2006, etc.). In yet another departure from the postmodern Pynchonian intricacy of his earlier fiction, this is the story of a devout young Dutch Calvinist (the eponymous Jacob) sent in 1799 to Japan, where the Dutch East India Company, aka the VOC, had opened trade routes more than two centuries earlier. But now the Company is threatened by the envious British Empire, which seeks to appropriate the Far East's rich commercial opportunities. Jacob's purpose is to acquire sufficient wealth and experience to earn the hand of his fiancee Anna. But his mission is to serve as a ship's clerk while simultaneously investigating charges of corruption against the Company's powerful Chief Resident. When a scandal involving the seizure of the much-desired commodity of copper is manipulated to implicate Jacob, he is posted to the artificially constructed island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, becoming a de facto prisoner of an insular little world of rigorously patterned and controlled cultural-and commercial-rituals. Meanwhile, the story of Aibagawa Orita, a facially disfigured (hence unmarriageable) midwife authorized to study with the Company's doctor (the saturnine Marinus, a kind of Pangloss to Jacob's earnest Candide), punished for having aspired beyond her station, and the moving story of her planned escape from servitude and reunion with the beloved (Uzaeman) forbidden to marry her (which contains deft echoes of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Ondaatje's The English Patient), mocks, as it exalts, Jacob's concealed love for this extraordinary woman. The story climaxes as British forces challenge the Dutch hold on the East's riches, and Jacob's long ordeal hurtles toward its conclusion. It's as difficult to put this novel down as it is to overestimate Mitchell's virtually unparalleled mastery of dramatic construction, illuminating characterizations and insight into historical conflict and change. Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable, and right on the money.
The Barnes & Noble Review

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell's fifth novel, is a historical romance set in Shogunate Japan, when the country was closed to all but a handful of foreigners, mostly Dutch and Chinese traders confined to the tiny artificial island of Deshima in Nagasaki Bay. Enter, into this interesting isolation, Unico Vorstenbosch, a new Chief sent by the Dutch East India Company to clean up Deshima's corruption, and his clerk, Jacob de Zoet, poor, pious, eager to earn enough money to go home and marry his sweetheart. What follows is a drama that brings to mind the galloping action of James Clavell's Shogun: it features deception, betrayal, love, theft, war, graphic depictions of midwifery and kidney-stone removal, games of cards, billiards and go, as well as a daring raid on a mountain abbey where unspeakable practices are, well, practiced, to sustain the life of the monks.

This is entertaining stuff, though it may seem slightly odd to readers who know Mitchell for his novel Cloud Atlas, which nested multiple narratives, set in eras ranging from the 1850s to the post-apocalyptic future, like ingeniously conceived Russian dolls. The Thousand Autumns eschews such devices: it unfurls like a scroll, from start to finish, often following de Zoet, but forsaking him for long passages to inhabit the mind of Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife with whom de Zoet falls in love; the interpreter Uzaemon Ogawa; the captain of an English warship, and others. These shifts give Mitchell the chance to "do voices," or rather, to do worlds: the court of Nagasaki's Magistrate, the warehouses of Deshima, the decks of a warship. His Japan is meticulously researched (it probably didn't hurt that he lived in Hiroshima for eight years) and his Dutchmen, too. (De Zoet has a real-life model, Hendrik Doeff, who served the Dutch East India Co. on Deshima from 1803 to 1818.) Indeed, there are places in the novel where Mitchell gives vent to a Bolaño-like excess of detail, as when the Dutch scientist Dr. Marinus gives a lecture to a group of Japanese students, and Uzaemon struggles to translate:

Uzaemon does his best to translate this, but it isn't easy: surely the Dutch word 'semen' cannot be related to this unknown verb 'disseminate'? Goto Shinpachi anticipates his colleague's difficulty and suggests 'distribute.' Uzaemon guesses 'germinate' means 'is accepted,' but is warned by suspicious glances from the Shirandō's audience: If we don't understand the speaker, we blame the interpreter.

The description is so precise that it's practically educational: you could learn how to deliver a baby from this book, or fire a ship's gun, or identify a few Japanese characters. So much attention to the minutia of procedure slows the narrative to the courtly pace of Noh theater, but Mitchell is a good enough storyteller that the book rarely bogs down.

At the same time, I couldn't help feeling that the sharpness of his rendering covers up, or perhaps accompanies, a certain rigidity of character. Jacob de Zoet is not unsympathetic, but at bottom he's a competent prig, like Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black, but without Julien's ambition, or his weakness. He falls in love with Orito Aibagawa because she happens to come into his office (looking for a monkey who has stolen a corpse's foot: another lovely detail), and because she is, like him, unflappable; whether she touches any deeper chord in him, or even whether there exists in him a deeper chord to touch, remains a mystery. Having declared his affection for Orito, de Zoet is briefly ecstatic:

Creation never ceased on the sixth evening, it occurs to the young man. Creation unfolds around us, despite us and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we like to call it 'Love.'

It's a lovely sentiment, but one which seems to come less from Jacob's heart than from the psalter which he has brought (against regulations) to Japan: a family psalter, which has guarded the hearts of the de Zoets, literally, for generations.

It may simply be that the space in which de Zoet is permitted to act is too small for him to reveal much of himself. Decorum and close quarters discourage the residents of Deshima from histrionics; the conflicts that arise on the island are of loyalty and betrayal, comprehension and incomprehension, tests which might prove the excellence of a dog, but are not so good at illuminating the intricacies of human character. Thus the Dutch: but actually no one in the novel has much room to move. Uzaemon Ogawa is impelled by his love for Orito to embark on a perilous adventure; once that wheel is set in motion, it simply turns, until it reaches the point where it has to stop, having revealed nothing more about Uzaemon than that he's an honorable fellow who sees things through to the end. Even Orito, given the most harrowing decision in the novel, chooses duty over desire. With the notable exception of the English captain Penhaligon, who is the most complex character in The Thousand Autumns, although he only occupies part of its last third, Mitchell's people are like go stones, stolidly occupying their places on the novel's grid, largely unaware of the part they play in the larger design. (As for the book's obligatory go master, Abbot Enomoto, he's even worse: his final words partake of a kind of stock villainy that makes Frank Miller look like Henry James.)

All of this would be fine if The Thousand Autumns were a novel of ideas, but it isn't, and that's the strangest thing about it. I don't miss the formal innovation of Cloud Atlas, which seemed to me like another cloaking device, a rapid alternation of narratives to distract the reader from the predictable course of each story in itself; but no other aspect of the novel comes forward to provoke thought. There is some play between science, as represented by Dr. Marinus and de Zoet and Orito, and magic, which is the domain of the nefarious Enomoto; there's even a moment when Marinus suggests provokingly that "science itself is in the early stages of becoming sentient." But these intellectual currents don't have much effect on the course of the novel. What triumphs in the end is neither science nor magic, but honesty and resignation and pluckiness in the face of all odds. There's a great deal of very interesting history in the novel, regarding European mercantilism and Japan at the dawn of the nineteenth century, but it is resolutely unallegorical, and speaks only of itself. Which leaves The Thousand Autumns in the situation of the country which is its subject: rich, intriguing, and cut off by inexplicable barriers from the rest of the world.

--Paul La Farge

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812976366
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 57,687
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

David Mitchell
David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of The Bone Clocks, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, and Ghostwritten. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell translated from the Japanese the internationally bestselling memoir The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

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From the Hardcover edition.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with David Mitchell, by Mark Martin for The Barnes & Noble Review.

British novelist David Mitchell spent much of his twenties teaching English as a foreign language in Sicily and Japan. Something of the footloose wanderer has characterized his fiction ever since. Both within individual books and across his body of work, Mitchell's writing is a brilliant peripatetic affair, springing between continents, eras, genres, and protagonists with a backpacker's delight in novelty.

His debut, Ghostwritten, was a globetrotting "novel" that took the form of short stories linked by overlapping cameos. His next two books, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas, were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and confirmed Mitchell as a prose conjurer eager to toy with expectations. Black Swan Green followed, a dreamlike, semi-autobiographical tale of a boy's coming-of-age. With any other writer, this would have been the logical preface to a blossoming career. But with his usual disregard for the predictable, Mitchell's Bildungsroman was the product of a mature period. His latest novel is the intricate recreation of an obscure corner of Japanese history.

The Barnes and Noble Review had the pleasure of Mitchell's conversation and discussed an array of topics including the new book, Charles Dickens, and what a neuroscan of an author's brain might reveal.

Mark Martin: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set primarily on the tiny man-made island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. What drew you to this particular time and place?

David Mitchell: It was a keyhole in the door in the wall that encircled Japan for 250 years. It was the only meeting point for Japan and Europe. And it reversed the usual colonial situation where the Europeans arrive and make the rules. The ten to fifteen Europeans who lived there were effectively prisoners or hostages. They weren't allowed to leave. The only people they could meet were merchants and translators and very, very expensive prostitutes. If I couldn't find a halfway decent novel swimming around in all of that, then I wouldn't be much of a writer.

MM: You do have an interest in isolated societies. Whether it's a Japanese doomsday cult or a seniors' home run like Colditz, examples appear throughout your books, and Dejima adds one more to the list. Could you explain what fascinates you about these claustrophobic little worlds?

DM: I think, dramatically, enclosure is quite good news. If there's no exit door, then when the going gets tough, people can't conveniently leave. If characters are stuck in a place, whatever human neuroses they are host to can fructify. Those neuroses are free to bear fruit and follow their arcs to a conclusion.

MM: Were there any particular literary models or inspirations you had in mind when writing this book?

DM: Models, no. Patron saints, yes: The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa and, a much more recent book, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. If not pinned above my writing desk, they were on the bookshelf at the end of the room, to remind me how high the bar of historical fiction can and should be. Also, as a writer you want to stay open to people who might have tried the same sort of thing and have cracked problems in a particular way, just so you don't have to reinvent the wheel. And if you're on board a ship in the age of sail, it's not clever to ignore Patrick O'Brian, because he's a gold mine of research that you can use.

MM: You went to live in Holland to research the Dutch protagonist, Jacob.

DM: I could do the Japanese side from a lot of what I knew already. But I didn't know a thing about the Netherlands or Dutch people. I needed to go and find stuff which you can't get in books.

MM: I’m not qualified to judge its accuracy, but I found the historical detail very convincing. In the back of my mind, I pictured you spending long taxing hours in the depths of the British Library.

DM: Staring, frowning, scribbling with a pen. You could do a sort of a digitalized window in the background that moves through the four seasons. No, I didn't get to the British Library. I did get to the University of Leiden and had a couple of long afternoons with a history professor who's a specialist on Dejima. And I got access to the day registers -- the logbooks -- that the chief residents of the Dutch East India Company used to record what was happening: the official version of events.

MM: And made good use of it …

DM: Yeah, well, research needs to be submerged beneath the waterline, at least nine-tenths of it. Otherwise you get those sort of awful sentences where people are flashily comparing the merits of different types of horse-drawn carriages.

MM: The middle part of the book is a departure from the first and the last sections in that it moves away from Dejima to follow Orito, Jacob's love interest. It includes elements of black magic and an obscure sisterhood of disfigured women. It's almost a change of genre. It's quite daring. It’s interesting, and it works. But I wondered if you were worried about performing that kind of switch in the book.

DM: No, in a way the reverse is true. I was more worried about having 500 pages of stylistically identical prose and how to keep that engaging. That would have been the thing to have brought off. Dickens could have done it. Tolstoy could. But I'm not sure I can. I'm happy and grateful that you assign a kind of writerly courage to my decision to change gear as dramatically as I do in the middle section. But the thought that it's a courageous decision is kind of misplaced.

MM: You have a habit of blending genres and styles, and there are some other notable writers also doing that at the moment. Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon come to mind. Do you see that approach as particular timely? Is the mixing of genres something that makes sense now when it wouldn't have worked, say, twenty years ago?

DM: I think that genre is a set of colors in the writer's paint box. And I would agree that there does seem to be a growing awareness around now that this set of colors is something you can utilize and play around with in the confines of one book. Which is a very long way of saying yes.

MM: In 1997, Time magazine listed you among the top 100 most influential people in the world­. Do you think fiction really is influential outside of publishing and its readership?

DM: It's a great question. If I were a lawyer, I'd feed on the words "its readership." That's where the enclosed, Dejima-like, terms of your question operate. That's the door that gets kicked down and where influence can bleed into the rest of the world. People do read books and are moved by them. Sometimes intellectual people read books and are moved by them. Dickens, since we mentioned him before, got the law changed with Bleak House. That's just one very specific example. But I'd perhaps go a little more new-agey on you here. I'm tempted to use words like "spirit" and "the soul." Really good books work because you don't consume them like a pack of freeze-dried pasta. Books will take up residence inside you, and even afterwards they'll stay there and alter slightly how you think about things. But that said, while it's hugely gratifying that the good people at Time responded positively to my work, I'd add the cavil that I'm not even in the top five most influential people in my own house.

MM: You've mentioned Dickens a couple of times. Are you a big fan?

DM: Dickens is great. The stuff that doesn't work so well, the sort of mawkish Victorian stuff -- I'm not really sure why he wrote that. Hard Times, you know, it's got things in it to admire, but it's not a great book. But the best of Dickens is really pretty bloody wonderful. He's a strangely designed aeroplane, one that takes off and does wonderful things and goes enormous distances. But if any one of its components were designed differently, then the whole thing would blow up on the runway before it got a quarter of a mile.

MM: I've read a couple of articles from you on the practice of writing. But there's no David Mitchell journalism. There are no op-eds, no memoir. That seems unusual among young writers of your stature, and I wondered if you could say something about that.

DM: It might be partly because of the sort of writer I am. I do focus, first and foremost, on the meat and potatoes of plot and character, with sort of side dishes of structure served at the same time. Theme and ideas are things I certainly don't start with. It's no accident I didn't become an academic or an intellectual. If it were possible to do a neuroscan of the part of the brain that is taken up with imagination rather than the part where intellect reigns supreme, then I think for me imagination would certainly have the upper hand. Ideas for me rise slowly through the surface of my stuff, rather than me implanting them at a very early stage and structuring the book to illustrate them, almost like a fictional essay. I'm not that kind of writer at all. So, the ideas, the themes, that I do get are a relatively scarce resource, and I want to keep it all for my fiction.

MM: You said that you don't start off with themes and ideas. What do you start off with? The kernel of every novel?

DM: Different novels have different kernels. I think of them as stem cells, actually. With Cloud Atlas, it was the structure and the idea of a predation, predacity -- which is an idea, I suppose. But there I'm being a bit revisionist about that book's history. It was the structure first. Then the desire to create narratives to show that there's nothing automatic about forward progress. Regress is just as possible as progress in civilization.

MM: And with The Thousand Autumns?

DM: Dejima was just this strange, wonderful, weird cat flap of a place between two cultures. It's what the crew of the Starship Enterprise would call an "anomaly," a space-time anomaly. There are not many Dejimas in history and I very much wanted to see if I could do something with it in fiction.

MM: It's been reported that Wachowski Brothers want to produce a film version of Cloud Atlas. How's that going?

DM: It's at an encouraging stage of development. I think it has a fabulous script, which deeply impresses the book's author. It's also a very long fabulous script, which makes large studios nervous. It might be unhelpful to the project to say more. It ain't over till the fat lady sings and the director says action.

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Reading Group Guide

1. David Mitchell once stated that his “intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives." Do you believe he accomplished this goal in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? How do you think the perspectives of each culture are portrayed, and are they given equal treatment?
 
2. Jacob de Zoet is an honest, pious man, and has a difficult time coping with the corruption around him on Dejima. Discuss the significance of the psalter, and the impacts of his decision to smuggle it onto the island.

3. One theme of the novel is the power of language -- how does it play into both authority and corruption in the interaction between Dutch and Japanese cultures?
 
4. Alternatively, how do instances of common language unite characters in the novel?
 
5. Vorstenbosch tells Jacob that “the orient is all about signals.” Discuss various mixed signals and miscommunications in the novel and their effects.
 
6. What are your expectations of historical fiction? How do you think this book aligns and diverges with projected notions of the genre?
 
7. Speaking of genre, what others genres do you see influencing this novel?  What does the novel change in each part?
 
8. The novel is peopled with dozens of fascinating secondary and tertiary characters.  Who is your favorite and why?
 
9. Discuss the concept of isolationism and how the novel's various settings and landscapes reflect it.
 
10. If you were to land in Dejima in 1799, what would be the first thing you would do?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 265 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Superb

    David Mitchell is definitely one of the best authors around. This one is quite different from his other books, but is still an intriguing tale set in a very interesting time of feudal Japan. It's fascinating how that society interacts with the Dutch and how they somewhat peacefully co-exist on Dejima. Mitchell has a fascinating way of getting you to believe in the characters from speaking from their point of view (Jacob, Orito, Penhaligon, Ogawa). Now I just have to wait another 4 years for his next one!

    12 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An Exceptional Book

    "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell is an exceptional book which can easily be passed as a romantic historical fiction. The book opens in the last part of the 18th Century in feudal Japan, where the reader is positioned in the middle of a difficult labor of the wife of a Japanese nobleman. The baby dies in the process, however the midwife, Orito, saves him and gets her wish to study medicine with a Dutch doctor named

    We are then introduced to Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk from the Dutch West Indies Company dreaming of making a fortune and coming back home to marry his sweetheart. Jacob is an honest man, incorruptible, who is sent by the company's new director to straighten out the corrupt books. Soon Jacob finds himself in Dejima, a small island off of Nagaski where the not-yet-ready-for-foreigners Japanese government performs trade and exchange. Dejima is a universe upon itself filled with corrupt Dutch officials, sailors, Japanese magistrates, interpreters and a few slaves as well.

    The naiveté of Jacob causes him to be a small part of a petty corruption fiasco which is then held over his head, leaving him exiled on Dejima. Jacob's honesty proves to be his blessing and his curse, as he constantly misses signals from his Dutch companions as well as the Japanese business associates, which are comical to the reader but have devastating results for Jacob.

    Jacob and Orito meet, and Jacob falls in love with her - only to try and rescue her from an unspeakable evil planned and executed by her step mother and a Japanese priest who sucks the life out of living creatures. How does a lowly Dutch clerk takes on an evil sadist who makes Dumas' Richelieu seem like the Pope?
    That is the genius of this novel which equally contrasts the Dutch and Japanese perspectives while preserving a mystery and allows honor and decorum triumph over corruption and wickedness.

    The first part of the novel is wonderful, the story is interesting, the setting fascinating and the prose is fantastic. Mitchell's writing is fabulous, the language is rich and extravagant and the story flows. The author's humor shines through the book as he incorporates little snippets of haiku among the narrative.

    The second part however is overflowing with bizarre tragedy and the narrative constantly relies on the "meanwhile back at the farm (temple)" jumps in story. The large cast, which was so eloquently introduced in the first part, seems to be a burden in the latter part. The character studies so fluently staged are now disconnected across time and ocean.

    "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet"is an epic which is meant to be read slowly and deliberately, the tale is smart and the story is fun. Even though the book incorporates shoguns and samurais, most of the account is carried by clerks and translators. The epic rescue attempt in a sanctuary surrounded by snow capped mountains is no less exciting than the description of diplomatic rituals and the "arse-licking pilgrimage" one must make before meeting the shogun. FOR MORE REVIEWS PLEASE VISIT: http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2010

    Equal Parts Page-Turner and Work of Art

    Even more of a work of art if you get the UK hardcover edition -- beautiful cover, and far more evocative of the story than the U.S. version. I loved this book for its cinematic, poetic, adventurous, historical and fanciful qualities, all there in equal measure. You can find a wordy description of the plot elsewhere -- my purpose in writing is to urge you to allow yourself to be put under David Mitchell's spell and enjoy this amazing book.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Another gem from David Mitchell

    David Mitchell is one of the best contemporary authors writing. No one supercedes his storytelling talents and his ability to draw fully realized, complex characters. "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet" is another gem, following the experiences of Jacob de Zoet on a small man-made island that is an outpost of the Dutch East Indies Company off teh coast of Nagasaki Japan at the turn of the 19th century. Time is a major theme in the novel, as Mitchell uses unique devices to remind the reader of the relentless march of time (the number of full bottles of alcohol remaining at a poker game, the bells of Nagasaki marking the hours, a sailor on a ship marking the depth of the water) as we mortals try to navigate our way in the inexorable evolution of the world and society. The choices that Jacob makes throughout his life have profound impacts on his own future, but also on Nagasaki society and British-Japanese relations. The characters, story and setting are richly illuminated, and hte outcomes fantastic, yet totally believable. I was saddened, like with all truly great books, when I finished the novel, and realized that I would have to wait through an indeterminate hiatus until the next Mitchell jewel.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 7, 2010

    Mitchell has reminded me why he's my favorite contemporary author

    've been saying for years that David Mitchell is one one of my favorite authors, but with yeas passing since I read (or re-read) his work, I forgot why. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet reminded me.

    This book is much more of a traditional novel than Mitchell's other works, which probably leans more toward being a good thing than a bad thing--it doesn't have the gimmicky feel of some of his other books. Mitchell remains true to his avant garde voice--the "gulls..." passage near the end of the book, for instance, is phenomenal, and begs to be read out-loud.

    Mitchell's storytelling is incredible, the characters real. (For the most part, I was a little annoyed that the alignment of a character on the side of "good" or "bad" could be discerned by their attitudes towards slavery and Christianity) The story lines were all engrossing, and, without giving anything away, the ending had me in tears.

    That being said, the first part was a bit slow, and I had a hard time keeping the names and characters straight. By the time the second part rolled around, though, I had a hard time putting it down.

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is, in my opinion, Mitchell's best book so far. It's one that I look forward to re-reading, and am already vigorously recommending to family and friends.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 8, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    I enjoyed this so much I am now reading David Mitchell's other novels

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book - the story being wonderfully creative, the characters memorable and the writing, well, gorgeous for the lack of a better word. For "literary fiction" this was a page-turner that I read over the course of several days while on vacation.

    Since finishing this book I have read "Number 9 Dream" and have almost finished "Ghostwritten" and have found that Mr. Mitchell is a wildly creative/inventive writer who seems to be able to write "different" books every time - unlike so many other writers that do the same story/style every time they publish a new book.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 1, 2011

    Beautiful and memorable.

    This is a truly extraordinary historical novel. It takes place in Japan at the end of the 18th century, a time when Japan was intentionally isolating itself from the outside world.

    Sound off-putting, and just too foreign? No, don't let the setting or the strange title discourage you from opening this book. (Japan is the "Land of a Thousand Autumns," Jacob is a young Dutchman a world away from his homeland.) It is a fascinating tale, written with beauty and clarity. And, it's exciting. My guess is, if you loved "Doctor Zivago," you'll probably love "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet."

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Thousand Reasons to Read This Book

    Okay, there may not actually be a THOUSAND reasons to read this book, but there are many. This is a book to be relished on many levels. It is historical fiction that actually lives and breathes, the kind that teaches without being didactic. There's adventure and pathos and a page-turning plot, along with some of the finest descriptive writing around today. Japan at the end of the 18th c is a country about to burst and a social order about to disintigrate; in this book we see the last days of the old order through both Eastern and Western eyes. This book is about people whose lives are as much on the edge as Japan itself. The subtly-drawn characters are as appealing as they are human. Whether you settle in for a marathon reading session or dip into this book chapter by chapter, you are sure to enjoy the unravelling tale.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 31, 2014

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet By David Mitchell 4 Stars


    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet By David Mitchell
    4 Stars

    The titled character, Jacob de Zoet, is sent to Dejima in 1799 for a period of five years. He goes originally to win the favor of his sweethearts father so that he may return successful and marry her. Dejima is a created island that is the Japanese's single port and really their only touch with world affairs. They are very much steeped in tradition, power and oppression. Jacob goes there as a clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company; he is to check the books and make sure all is right.

    Shortly after Jacob's arrival he learns quite a few things. There is vast corruption that does not pay to uncover, tremendous power in a small few and oppressing tradition all around. Jacob meets a woman named Orito Aibagawa who is a beautiful albeit scarred daughter of a samurai and midwife to a magistrate of Dejima. Jacob is entranced and his far off love all but forgotten. The rules of protocol make anything further virutally impossible. Orito is lucky to even be allowed on Dejima as any females there are "wives" and courteseans only which makes her even more off limits. The role of women in Japan is a very specific one at this point in time and Orito is attempting to break all the rules.

    What follows is a lot of love and hate, oppression, corruption, tradition, history, intrigue and much more. There is a lot going on in this novel. Characters change and grow and are tested to their very limits. I think Mitchell did a good job of keeping all of this straight and incorporating the history of the time.

    This was my second go round for this, the audio was just too much and I did not get very far. I was missing out on a lot so when I started it in print it caught me. The beginning grabbed me this time and then I got into the historical/social aspects of the story. What I thought was absolutely boring was not this time. Which really surprised me given the subject matter that I normally am not at all interested in. The society, class structures and pomp and circumstance pulled me in. It was nitty gritty and made me thankful I did not have to live through something like that. Of course I would have been burned at the stake long before for my red hair or died in child birth so I guess it's not all so bad.

    I did feel that some parts were a little slower. The business aspects were a bit much sometimes. Having read two of his other novels that did not bother me because they are all tied together in some way. Mitchell's separations can be jarring, but end up being part of the bigger picture. I do wish there had been more on Ogawa and Orito but I was ok that there wasn't.

    Overall this book has stuck with me and I am glad that I gave it another chance. Can't wait to see what Mr. Mitchell has in store for us next. He is unique and has an extraordinary imagination with real creative ingenuity.


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  • Posted June 13, 2013

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the fifth novel by awar

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the fifth novel by award-winning British author, David Mitchell, who classifies it as historical fiction. Jacob de Zoet is a young Dutch clerk, a Zeelander working for the Dutch East India Company, on a five-year clerical post to Java, where he hopes to make his fortune in order to marry his Dutch sweetheart. He arrives in Nagasaki with the new Chief Resident-elect of Dejima, an island enclave to which the Dutch traders are confined. Soon after his arrival, he encounters a young Japanese midwife with whom he promptly falls in love. Mitchell slowly and carefully crafts his plot to reach a dramatic climax. Mitchell’s potted histories of his characters contribute to their depth and appeal, as well as developing the plot. His dialogue sounds genuine, especially the rendering of translated language. Mitchell gives the reader a fascinating peek into the world that was European trade with Japan in the late 18th century. This was a world filled with corruption, bribery, execution and religious persecution. De Zoet learns the diplomacy and the political tactics necessary in dealing with the Japanese, and that men of honour and integrity are few and far between. This novel makes the historical facts, which might have been dry and unpalatable, interesting and easy to assimilate. De Zoet is loosely based on Hendrick Doeff, one of Dejima’s real Chief Residents. Mitchell does bend a few historical facts: the incident on which the climax is based actually happened somewhat later; the reference by characters in 1799 to the mass eradication of Tasmanian aborigines is premature; nonetheless, this does not detract from the novel in any way. Some of the prose is truly beautiful: Mitchell manages to be quite lyrical about clouds and weather; there are also several charming illustrations. This is a brilliant novel and easily the best I have read in a long time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2013

    Fantastic

    Will stick with you long after reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2012

    What on earth is this "Oriental obsession" of his? If

    What on earth is this "Oriental obsession" of his? If this is all he is going to continue to write about, I'll never read him again. I have nothing against Orientals, but I don't want to just read about them all the time. A little variety here, please!

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2012

    Best book in a while.

    This book was recommended on an NPR radio show and so I thought I would give it a try. Glad I did. Very well written.

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  • Posted December 14, 2011

    Fascinating

    Great character development and storyline. Looking forward to reading more by this author.

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  • Posted November 19, 2011

    His finest work to date.

    Mitchell is one of my favorite authors and has been since i first read "Ghostwritten" many years ago. The "Thousand Autumns..." is in my opinion Mitchell's finest achievement to date. His command of language is as always stunning and a pleasure to experience, but equally important and amazing is his ability to portray characters from diverse cultures in a way that is true to their reported culture and yet which fully portrays their common humanity as well. I suspect that he must truly fall in love with each of his many characters as he creates them and it is that love which brings them to life and which shines through what he has them do and say. And having mentioned the word love, it is love that is particularly on display in this novel and not in any simplistic or hackneyed way. It is a study of humanity that truly rewards the reader as he lives it along with the characters of this book. I look forward to reading his next novel whenever it may appear.

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  • Posted June 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Elegantly written, but a bit too slow for me.

    This novel and I did not get along. There were sections that were beautifully written, but in between those were long spans of overly descriptive text that I really did not have the energy to appreciate. As interesting as pieces of this novel were, it's really the most frustrating love story ever. Jacob is totally infatuated with Orito and as decades pass, they cross paths maybe four times (I lost count)? This would be great if Orito felt the same way about him, but she doesn't, so the periods in between their meetings are long, painful stretches where Jacob continues to imagine how it could be between the two of them.

    My book club discussed it last week and although most of us agreed that the writing is beautiful, many agreed that the pace was questionable. It's one of those books where nothing happens. Some could argue that lots happened, but really. I would have to disagree with that. One member pointed out that long periods of isolation would drag out like that. I thought that was an interesting comment and then started to think that the structure of the novel was intentionally laid out that way.but then I thought the opposite. Not sure why.

    This is not a book to skim. You have to take your time with it and perhaps I just didn't have enough time to devote to it, because it's well-received by many. For now, I will part ways with David Mitchell but in a year or two, I wouldn't be surprised if I picked up one of his other books (Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green) because the writing was beautiful and some of the characters were quite vividly drawn.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Solid, well-researched historical fiction

    Quick Version:

    Jacob De Zoet, an inconsequential clerk, hopes to make his fortune in Japan and return to the Netherlands to marry his sweetheart. But life on Dejima, the Dutch trading post in early 19th Century Nagasaki harbor, does not always follow the chosen path of her inhabitants.

    Long Version:

    A bright young man, Jacob De Zoet was fairly certain of his ability to make a fortune and a reputation working for the Dutch East India trading company on Dejima, their island trading enclave in Nagasaki harbor, thereby rendering him acceptable to the father of the girl he wants to marry.

    Jacob is a very solid character; he stands strong in his integrity-to the point of injuring his future prospects and rendering his fictional self an almost unbelievable character. Author David Mitchell does a good job sketching a stable, solid character, but Jacob is so righteous that I had trouble accepting him. He is clearly shown to be a very religious man-however, no man is perfect, and Jacob would have felt a bit more credible had he been a bit more flawed.

    In its historical feel, the book reminded me a lot of James Clavell's Shogun, although certainly not as broad in scope; Thousand Autumns paints a vivid picture of the time and place in which it is set.

    While I was disappointed in the characterization of Jacob, I must admit that the plot does not follow a predictable path, either in his life nor in the lives of his fellows. Some aspects of the plot I found unbelievable, some I loved for how well they wove Japanese culture into the framework of the book, and some simply did not leave me feeling fulfilled (in other words, did not resolve the way I wanted them to resolve).

    I chose, based upon several recommendations, to listen to this one on audio; I had been well advised to do so. Narrators Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox both do an excellent job breathing life into their subjects. Overall, this is a solid piece of historical fiction which gets my recommendation both as a novel and as a riveting audio performance. It will definitely have me seeking out other works by David Mitchell.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2011

    Great book -- fascinating read -- wonderful story!

    I found this book as one of very few novels recommended from the past year in Christian Century magazine. It's a great story of a Dutch lad in a foreign culture as Japan was in the 19th century. It's a fast read for a 500 page book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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