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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
The House of Kawasemi the Concubine, above Nagasaki
The ninth night of the fifth month
"Miss kawasemi?" orito kneels on a stale and sticky futon. "Can you hear me?"
In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates.
Orito dabs the concubine's sweat-drenched face with a damp cloth.
"She's barely spoken"-the maid holds the lamp-"for hours and hours. . . ."
"Miss Kawasemi, I'm Aibagawa. I'm a midwife. I want to help."
Kawasemi's eyes ﬂicker open. She manages a frail sigh. Her eyes shut.
She is too exhausted, Orito thinks, even to fear dying tonight.
Dr. Maeno whispers through the muslin curtain. "I wanted to examine the child's presentation myself, but . . ." The elderly scholar chooses his words with care. "But this is prohibited, it seems."
"My orders are clear," states the chamberlain. "No man may touch her."
Orito lifts the bloodied sheet and ﬁnds, as warned, the fetus's limp arm, up to the shoulder, protruding from Kawasemi's vagina.
"Have you ever seen such a presentation?" asks Dr. Maeno.
"Yes: in an engraving, from the Dutch text Father was translating."
"This is what I prayed to hear! The Observations of William Smellie?"
"Yes: Dr. Smellie terms it," Orito uses the Dutch, " 'Prolapse of the Arm.' "
Orito clasps the fetus's mucus-smeared wrist to search for a pulse.
Maeno now asks her in Dutch, "What are your opinions?"
There is no pulse. "The baby is dead," Orito answers, in the same language, "and the mother will die soon, if the child is not delivered." She places her ﬁngertips on Kawasemi's distended belly and probes the bulge around the inverted navel. "It was a boy." She kneels between Kawasemi's parted legs, noting the narrow pelvis, and sniffs the bulging labia: she detects the malty mixture of grumous blood and excrement, but not the stench of a rotted fetus. "He died one or two hours ago."
Orito asks the maid, "When did the waters break?"
The maid is still mute with astonishment at hearing a foreign language.
"Yesterday morning, during the Hour of the Dragon," says the stony- voiced housekeeper. "Our lady entered labor soon after."
"And when was the last time that the baby kicked?"
"The last kick would have been around noon today."
"Dr. Maeno, would you agree the infant is in"-she uses the Dutch term-"the 'transverse breech position' "
"Maybe," the doctor answers in their code tongue, "but without an examination . . ."
"The baby is twenty days late, or more. It should have been turned."
"Baby's resting," the maid assures her mistress. "Isn't that so, Dr. Maeno?"
"What you say"-the honest doctor wavers-"may well be true."
"My father told me," Orito says, "Dr. Uragami was overseeing the birth."
"So he was," grunts Maeno, "from the comfort of his consulting rooms. After the baby stopped kicking, Uragami ascertained that, for geomantic reasons discernible to men of his genius, the child's spirit is reluctant to be born. The birth henceforth depends on the mother's willpower." The rogue, Maeno needs not add, dares not bruise his reputation by presiding over the stillbirth of such an estimable man's child. "Chamberlain Tomine then persuaded the magistrate to summon me. When I saw the arm, I recalled your doctor of Scotland and requested your help."
"My father and I are both deeply honored by your trust," says Orito . . .
. . . and curse Uragami, she thinks, for his lethal reluctance to lose face.
Abruptly, the frogs stop croaking and, as though a curtain of noise falls away, the sound of Nagasaki can be heard, celebrating the safe arrival of the Dutch ship.
"If the child is dead," says Maeno in Dutch, "we must remove it now."
"I agree." Orito asks the housekeeper for warm water and strips of linen and uncorks a bottle of Leiden salts under the concubine's nose to win her a few moments' lucidity. "Miss Kawasemi, we are going to deliver your child in the next few minutes. First, may I feel inside you?"
The concubine is seized by the next contraction and loses her ability to answer.
warm water is delivered in two copper pans as the agony subsides. "We should confess," Dr. Maeno proposes to Orito in Dutch, "the baby is dead. Then amputate the arm to deliver the body."
"First, I wish to insert my hand to learn whether the body is in a convex lie or concave lie."
"If you can discover that without cutting the arm"-Maeno means "amputate"-"do so."
Orito lubricates her right hand with rapeseed oil and addresses the maid: "Fold one linen strip into a thick pad . . . yes, like so. Be ready to wedge it between your mistress's teeth; otherwise she might bite off her tongue. Leave spaces at the sides, so she can breathe. Dr. Maeno, my inspection is beginning."
"You are my eyes and ears, Miss Aibagawa," says the doctor.
Orito works her ﬁngers between the fetus's biceps and its mother's ruptured labia until half her wrist is inside Kawasemi's vagina. The concubine shivers and groans. "Sorry," says Orito, "sorry . . ." Her ﬁngers slide between warm membranes and skin and muscle still wet with amniotic ﬂuid, and the midwife pictures an engraving from that enlightened and barbaric realm, Europe . . .
If the transverse lie is convex, recalls Orito, where the fetus's spine is arched backward so acutely that its head appears between its shins like a Chinese acrobat, she must amputate the fetus's arm, dismember its corpse with toothed forceps, and extract it, piece by grisly piece. Dr. Smellie warns that any remnant left in the womb will fester and may kill the mother. If the transverse lie is concave, however, Orito has read, where the fetus's knees are pressed against its chest, she may saw off the arm, rotate the fetus, insert crotchets into the eye sockets, and extract the whole body, headﬁrst. The midwife's index ﬁnger locates the child's knobbly spine, traces its midriff between its lowest rib and its pelvic bone, and encounters a minute ear; a nostril; a mouth; the umbilical cord; and a prawn-sized penis. "Breech is concave," Orito reports to Dr. Maeno, "but the cord is around the neck."
"Do you think the cord can be released?" Maeno forgets to speak Dutch.
"Well, I must try. Insert the cloth," Orito tells the maid, "now, please."
When the linen wad is secured between Kawasemi's teeth, Orito pushes her hand in deeper, hooks her thumb around the embryo's cord, sinks four ﬁngers into the underside of the fetus's jaw, pushes back his head, and slides the cord over his face, forehead, and crown. Kawasemi screams, hot urine trickles down Orito's forearm, but the procedure works ﬁrst time: the noose is released. She withdraws her hand and reports, "The cord is freed. Might the doctor have his"-there is no Japanese word-"forceps?"
"I brought them along," Maeno taps his medical box, "in case."
"We might try to deliver the child"-she switches to Dutch-"without amputating the arm. Less blood is always better. But I need your help."
Dr. Maeno addresses the chamberlain: "To help save Miss Kawasemi's life, I must disregard the magistrate's orders and join the midwife inside the curtain."
Chamberlain Tomine is caught in a dangerous quandary.
"You may blame me," Maeno suggests, "for disobeying the magistrate."
"The choice is mine," decides the chamberlain. "Do what you must, Doctor."
The spry old man crawls under the muslin, holding his curved tongs.
When the maid sees the foreign contraption, she exclaims in alarm.
" 'Forceps,' " the doctor replies, with no further explanation.
The housekeeper lifts the muslin to see. "No, I don't like the look of that! Foreigners may chop, slice, and call it 'medicine,' but it is quite unthinkable that-"
"Do I advise the housekeeper," growls Maeno, "on where to buy ﬁsh?"
"Forceps," explains Orito, "don't cut-they turn and pull, just like a midwife's ﬁngers but with a stronger grip . . ." She uses her Leiden salts again. "Miss Kawasemi, I'm going to use this instrument"-she holds up the forceps-"to deliver your baby. Don't be afraid, and don't resist. Europeans use them routinely-even for princesses and queens. We'll pull your baby out, gently and ﬁrmly."
"Do so . . ." Kawasemi's voice is a smothered rattle. "Do so . . ."
"Thank you, and when I ask Miss Kawasemi to push . . ."
"Push . . ." She is fatigued almost beyond caring. "Push . . ."
"How often," Tomine peers in, "have you used that implement?"
Orito notices the chamberlain's crushed nose for the ﬁrst time: it is as severe a disﬁgurement as her own burn. "Often, and no patient ever suffered." Only Maeno and his pupil know that these "patients" were hollowed-out melons whose babies were oiled gourds. For the ﬁnal time, if all goes well, she works her hand inside Kawasemi's womb. Her ﬁngers ﬁnd the fetus's throat, rotate his head toward the cervix, slip, gain a surer purchase, and swivel the awkward corpse through a third turn. "Now, please, Doctor."
Maeno slides in the forceps around the protruding arm.
The onlookers gasp; a parched shriek is wrenched from Kawasemi.
Orito feels the forceps' curved blades in her palm: she maneuvers them around the fetus's soft skull. "Close them."
Gently but ﬁrmly, the doctor squeezes the forceps shut.
Orito takes the forceps' handles in her left hand: the resistance is spongy but ﬁrm, like konnyaku jelly. Her right hand, still inside the uterus, cups the fetus's skull.
Dr. Maeno's bony ﬁngers encase Orito's wrist.
"What is it you're waiting for?" asks the housekeeper.
"The next contraction," says the doctor, "which is due any-"
Kawasemi's breathing starts to swell with fresh pain.
"One and two," counts Orito, "and-push, Kawasemi-san!"
"Push, Mistress!" exhort the maid and the housekeeper.
Dr. Maeno pulls at the forceps; with her right hand, Orito pushes the fetus's head toward the birth canal. She tells the maid to grasp the baby's arm and pull. Orito feels the resistance grow as the head reaches the aperture. "One and two . . . now!" Squeezing the glans of the clitoris ﬂat comes a tiny corpse's matted crown.
"Here he is!" gasps the maid, through Kawasemi's animal shrieks.
Here comes the baby's scalp; here his face, marbled with mucus . . .
. . . Here comes the rest of his slithery, clammy, lifeless body.
"Oh, but-oh," says the maid. "Oh. Oh. Oh . . ."
Kawasemi's high-pitched sobs subside to moans, and deaden.
She knows. Orito discards the forceps, lifts the lifeless baby by his ankles and slaps him. She has no hope of coaxing out a miracle: she acts from discipline and training. After ten hard slaps, she stops. He has no pulse. She feels no breath on her cheek from the lips and nostrils. There is no need to announce the obvious. Splicing the cord near the navel, she cuts the gristly string with her knife, bathes the lifeless boy in a copper of water, and places him in the crib. A crib for a coffin, she thinks, and a swaddling sheet for a shroud.
Chamberlain Tomine gives instructions to a servant outside. "Inform His Honor that a son was stillborn. Dr. Maeno and his midwife did their best but were powerless to alter what Fate had decreed."
Orito's concern is now puerperal fever. The placenta must be extracted, yakumosô applied to the perineum, and blood stanched from an anal ﬁssure.
Dr. Maeno withdraws from the curtained tent to make space.
A moth the size of a bird enters and blunders into Orito's face.
Batting it away, she knocks the forceps off one of the copper pans.
The forceps clatters onto a pan lid; the loud clang frightens a small creature that has somehow found its way into the room; it mewls and whimpers.
A puppy? wonders Orito, bafﬂed. Or a kitten?
The mysterious animal cries again, very near: under the futon?
"Shoo that thing away!" the housekeeper tells the maid. "Shoo it!"
The creature mewls again, and Orito realizes it is coming from the crib.
Surely not, thinks the midwife, refusing to hope. Surely not . . .
She snatches away the linen sheet just as the baby's mouth opens.
He inhales once, twice, three times; his crinkled face crumples . . .
. . . and the shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot howls at Life.
Captain Lacy's cabin on the Shenandoah, anchored in Nagasaki harbor
Evening of July 20, 1799
"How else," demands daniel snitker, "is a man to earn just reward for the daily humiliations we suffer from those slit-eyed leeches? 'The unpaid servant,' say the Spanish, 'has the right to pay himself,' and for once, damn me, the Spanish are right. Why so certain there'll still be a company to pay us in five years' time? Amsterdam is on its knees; our shipyards are idle; our manufactories silent; our granaries plundered; The Hague is a stage of prancing marionettes tweaked by Paris; Prussian jackals and Austrian wolves laugh at our borders: and Jesus in heaven, since the bird-shoot at Kamperduin we are left a maritime nation with no navy. The British seized the Cape, Coromandel, and Ceylon without so much as a kiss-my-arse, and that Java itself is their next fattened Christmas goose is plain as day! Without neutral bottoms like this"-he curls his lip at Captain Lacy-"Yankee, Batavia would starve. In such times, Vorstenbosch, a man's sole insurance is salable goods in the warehouse. Why else, for God's sake, are you here?"
The old whale-oil lantern sways and hisses.
"That," Vorstenbosch asks, "was your closing statement?"
Snitker folds his arms. "I spit on your drumhead trial."
Captain Lacy issues a gargantuan belch. "'Twas the garlic, gentlemen."
Vorstenbosch addresses his clerk: "We may record our verdict . . ."
Jacob de Zoet nods and dips his quill: ". . . drumhead trial."
"On this day, the twentieth of July, 1799, I, Unico Vorstenbosch, chief-elect of the trading factory of Dejima in Nagasaki, acting by the powers vested in me by His Excellency P. G. van Overstraten, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, witnessed by Captain Anselm Lacy of the Shenandoah, ﬁnd Daniel Snitker, acting-chief of the above- mentioned factory, guilty of the following: gross dereliction of duty-"
"I fulfilled," insists Snitker, "every duty of my post!"
" 'Duty' " Vorstenbosch signals to Jacob to pause. "Our warehouses were burning to cinders whilst you, sir, romped with strumpets in a brothel-a fact omitted from that farrago of lies you are pleased to call your day register. And had it not been for the chance remark of a Japanese interpreter-"
"Shit-house rats who blacken my name 'cause I'm wise to their tricks!"
"Is it a 'blackening of your name' that the ﬁre engine was missing from Dejima on the night of the ﬁre?"
"Perhaps the defendant took the engine to the House of Wistaria," remarks Captain Lacy, "to impress the ladies with the thickness of his hose."
"The engine," objects Snitker, "was Van Cleef's responsibility."
"I'll tell your deputy how faithfully you defended him. To the next item, Mr. de Zoet: 'Failure to have the factory's three senior ofﬁcers sign the Octavia's bills of lading.' "
"Oh, for God's sake. A mere administrative oversight!"
"An 'oversight' that permits crooked chiefs to cheat the company in a hundred ways, which is why Batavia insists on triple authorization. Next item: 'Theft of company funds to pay for private cargoes.' "
"Now that," Snitker spits with anger, "that is a ﬂat lie!"
From a carpetbag at his feet, Vorstenbosch produces two porcelain ﬁgurines in the Oriental mode. One is an executioner, ax poised to behead the second, a kneeling prisoner, hands bound and eyes on the next world.
"Why show me those"-Snitker is shameless-"gewgaws?"
"Two gross were found in your private cargo-'twenty-four dozen Arita ﬁgurines,' let the record state. My late wife nurtured a fondness for Japanese curiosities, so I have a little knowledge. Indulge me, Captain Lacy: estimate their value in, let us say, a Viennese auction house."
Captain Lacy considers. "Twenty guilders a head?"
"For these slighter ones alone, thirty-ﬁve guilders; for the gold- leafed courtesans, archers, and lords, ﬁfty. What price the two gross? Let us aim low-Europe is at war, and markets unsettled-and call it thirty-five per head . . . multiplied by two gross. De Zoet?"
Jacob's abacus is to hand. "Ten thousand and eighty guilders, sir."
Lacy issues an impressed "Hee-haw!"
"Tidy proﬁt," states Vorstenbosch, "for merchandise purchased at the company's expense yet recorded in the bills of lading-unwitnessed, of course-as 'Acting-Chief's Private Porcelain,' in your hand, Snitker."
"The former chief, God rest his soul"-Snitker changes his story-"willed them to me, before the court embassy."
"So Mr. Hemmij foresaw his demise on his way back from Edo?"
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.
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?
Posted July 13, 2010
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!
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Posted August 10, 2010
"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
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Posted July 26, 2010
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.
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Posted August 23, 2010
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.
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Posted November 7, 2010
'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.
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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.
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Posted September 1, 2011
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."
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Posted April 28, 2011
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.
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Posted January 31, 2014
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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet By David Mitchell
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.
Posted June 13, 2013
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2013
Posted October 26, 2012
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!
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Posted September 19, 2012
Posted December 14, 2011
Posted November 19, 2011
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 20, 2011
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.
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Posted May 16, 2011
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.
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.
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Posted January 3, 2011
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!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 24, 2011
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Posted July 24, 2010
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