The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

3.6 266
by David Mitchell

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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


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

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Editorial Reviews

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

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)
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.
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.
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
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.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

Chapter Two

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?"

Meet the Author

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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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 267 reviews.
Somedayyoumay More than 1 year ago
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!
Man_Of_La_Book_Dot_Com More than 1 year ago
"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:
Yosemite More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Cordillia More than 1 year ago
'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.
jsymons More than 1 year ago
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."
Geenyas More than 1 year ago
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.
Pablo_in_Austin More than 1 year ago
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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mgoodrich718 More than 1 year ago
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. flag
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cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
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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Will stick with you long after reading.
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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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