The book trailer shows us a ship sailing slowly over the specious seas of The Land of a Thousand Autumns. Seagulls fly over the sea foam eternally reaching for a kiss on the clouds’ cheeks. The clouds languidly move aside to unveil the quaint island of Dejima, the sole gateway between Europe and Japan.
The little community of European traders and interpreters, spies and servants, is the anchor of this novel. This, and the interaction with the Japanese and their culture during the Edo period, becomes Jacob de Zoet’s thousand autumns.
Saturday, October 18th of the year 1800 is calm and blue.
Starlings fly in nebulae: like a child in a fairy-tale, Jacob longs to join them.
Or else, he daydreams, let my round eyes become nomadic ovals…
West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds.
…my pink skin turn dull gold; my freakish hair, a sensible black…
From an alleyway, the clatter of a night-cart threatens his reverie.
…and my boorish body become one of theirs … poised and sleek.
Eight liveried horses proceed along a thoroughfare. Theirs hoofs echo.
How far would I get, Jacob wonders, if I ran, hooded, through the streets?
…up through rice terraces, up to the folded mountains, the folds within folds.
The novel is divided into three parts. If I attempt to summarize all three, I might end up spoiling everything so I’ll settle with the first. The eponymous hero sails to Dejima, an artificial island near Nagasaki. He does so to make more money so that he could marry the woman he loves back at Netherlands. As a clerk, he is given the nasty job of examining the accounts of the shipping company that he works for. While going about this tedious task that forebodes corruption and betrayal, Jacob de Zoet, incorruptible and pious, falls in love, in spite of the other woman back at home, with the Japanese midwife Orito Aibagawa.
Orito Aibagawa will eat up most of the second part of the novel, but I’ll keep my promise; I’ll stop now.
If one reads David Mitchell’s books in the order that they were published, one might be surprised at the genre shifts. From the structure-bender Cloud Atlas, to the intimate and semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, and now to the grand and historical Thousand Autumns, one can either be unseated because of the transitions from one novel to the next or fascinated with the thought of the things that the author can still do.
A clear change in this novel’s narrative from the earlier ones is the controlled writing. Rarely does one read a lengthy paragraph about anything, and this mostly happens when a character is speaking. And when they do speak or think, the words are interrupted so often that there is a staccato of lyrical precision that makes one tempted to read the text aloud to appreciate the beat.
Yes, the novel’s structure is yet the most straightforward among Mitchell’s five novels. It can also be easily identified as historical fiction, what with relaying of trading details between Japan and Netherlands of the late 18th century. But this is not as simple as its straightforwardness because the complexity lies on, as mentioned above, the restraint writing and the grand cast of characters, ranging from Dutch employees, Japanese officials and interpreters, Malay slaves, British sailors, and even a simian loverboy.
The novel’s fundamental premise, colonizing Europeans encountering the reclusive Japanese, unfurls a number of subplots with their corresponding themes, namely greed, power, lust, corruption, betrayal, faith, religion, science, war, slavery, culture, globalization, isolation, enlightenment, love, solitude, et cetera. One cannot help but wonder how all these things are going to be framed within a single novel about a Dutch clerk exiled in Japan for nearly two decades.
Did Mitchell deliver this time? Admittedly, this is not an easy book to read. One needs patience to plod through the chapters filled with character portraits, plot builders, back stories, and cliffhangers. Ultimately, it is a story about the good versus the evil. Characters are straightly cast into either side. Is this character with Jacob de Zoet or is this character against him?
I’ve read this with a number of book club friends, and we have agreed that there’s the theme of fortune reversal pervading the story. The bad guys initially win, the good are downtrodden. At the end, you know what happens? Oh, there are different things, but I’d rather not say. Just take my advice: lose yourself in the novel. If you have any expectations, set them aside. Read it slowly, especially the last two chapters.
And since I’ve finished reading all the Mitchell novels, I can’t help expecting more wonderful novels from him. Take a look at this video. Writing is a job that he would gladly do in his lifetime, and reading him is a delight in mine.
Reviews from book buddies: