Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

I’ve read three books by David Mitchell and he hasn’t disappointed me yet.  Even better, the three books are completely different — Cloud Atlas spans many different time periods and characters, from prehistoric to future, Black Swan Green is about teens in 1980s England, and Thousand Autumns is a historical novel about Dutch trade in Japan in 1799.

This book was on a lot of literary “best of 2010” lists last year, and it completely deserves the honor.

I started this book last year, got a few chapters in, and for some reason found it difficult to connect with the book.  I put it down and planned to come back to it.  I’m glad I did.  This time, I’m not even sure where the initial “slow patch” was for me.  Jacob is a character you like instantly, and his story is a compelling one.

Which is not to say this is an easy read.  The story takes place primarily from 1799-1800 in Dejima and Nagasaki, Japan.  The opening chapter is about a midwife and doctor who help deliver a child from a woman who is the concubine of a Japanese magistrate.  This part of the story is disturbingly graphic and powerfully written, though it won’t be clear for some time how it relates to the rest of the story.  Next, the story switches entirely and the reader is introduced to a Dutch merchant ship docking in Dejima.  Dejima is actually a man-made island created as a port for the Dutch (and other foreign traders) that sits outside of Nagasaki, Japan.  At this time, Japan was actually closed to foreigners as part of the country’s Isolationist policies.  I’m not going to pretend I know more than that about historical Japanese foreign policy.  But what it means is that the Dutch who work for the Dutch East India trading company are forced to live on this tiny island while merchant ships make their trade routes back and forth.  Those who live and work in Dejima are largely ignored by the trading company and by the Japanese, except where profit is concerned.

Jacob is a clerk who has signed up to work for the company for a few years, so he can earn enough to marry Anna, his fiance back home in the Netherlands.  Most of the Dutch have no interest in getting to know the Japanese, and the reverse is also true.  Yet Jacob seems to be interested in learning about all the things around him, from medicine to culture to politics.  He is smart and observant, and aspires to advance to higher positions.  He is also principled, which he will find to be a hindrance in working for the mostly-corrupt Dutch merchants.

Jacob’s job is to investigate the theft committed by the previous Chief, who was clearly embezzling Japanese wares.  Jacob is asked to review all the books and inventory to discern how much was stolen and who else was responsible.  Right off the bat, viewed as the company snitch, clearly he is not going to be a favorite among the working men.

Jacob falls in love with the young midwife featured in the opening of the book, Orito Aibagawa.  Unfortunately, Jacob isn’t allowed to set foot in Japan and marriages between the Japanese and the Dutch are forbidden.  The only relationship Jacob could have with her is as his mistress, and neither of them is interested in that.

The scene where they meet is memorable.  William Pitt, an ape, runs into Jacob’s warehouse holding a bloody severed leg (foot attached).  Aibagawa runs in after it.

Voices – Dutch, Japanese, Malay – clatter down Long Street from the hospital.

The doorway frames their outlines, brief as blinks, running down Bony Alley.

Jacob sifts his meager Japanese vocabulary for any suitable items.

When she notices the red-haired, green-eyed foreigner, she gasps with alarm.

“Miss,” implores Jacob in Dutch, “I-I-I- please don’t worry – I…”

The woman studies him and concludes that he offers no threat.

“Bad monkey,” she regains her composure, “steal foot.”

The ape places the leg at his side, grips his rhubarb-pink penis, and twangs it like a harpist in a madhouse, cackling through bared teeth.  Jacob fears for his visitor’s modesty, but she turns aside to hide her laughter and, in doing so, reveals a burn covering much of the left side of her face.  It is dark, blotched, and close up, very conspicuous… Too late, he is aware that she is watching him gawp.  She pushes back her headscarf and thrusts her cheek toward Jacob.  There, this gesture declares, drink your fill.

The rest of the scene is even better.  Jacob, trying to impress the mysterious woman, who he assumes is a concubine’s maid, tries to get the leg and the ape urinates on him instead.  Aibagawa then dangles tobacco in front of the ape, and it gives up the leg and runs off.  Aibagawa picks up the leg, and at that point a group of workers, guards, and medical students run in.  Aibagawa tells the story to the men, but eliminates the humiliating parts for Jacob’s benefit.

Thus, Aibagawa is established in one short scene as a character who is strong, intelligent, kind, and even has a sense of humor.  Jacob will later find out that she is a talented midwife as well, and one who has such a thirst for learning that she has convinced her father to allow her to study medicine (she is the only female among the medical students, not surprisingly).

The book cleverly explores the relations (prejudice, distrust, and economic interdependence) between the Dutch and the Japanese.  It also explores class relations between the Dutch merchants and working class men, racism, slavery, and the treatment of Japanese women.  It’s slow moving at times, given the amount of detail and number of characters.  But it’s the kind of book where you think not much is happening, and then after you put it down you realize just how much the author managed to convey.  Dejima is described in rich historical detail that seems to be well-researched (as much as I can know), including a mostly-factual incident that occurs later in the book involving the English ship Phaeton.

The book is beautifully written.  I’ve said that before in reviews — but there are times that reading this book is like poetry.  Sometimes in a novel that can be tedious and pretentious.  David Mitchell pulls it off in a way that, rather from distracting from the story, enriches it.  I think it’s partly because this book is set in such an exotic setting and in such a foreign culture.  As a reader I was hungry for description as well as plot and Mitchell provides that in satisfying detail. An example is Chapter 39, when he describes the Magistracy of Nagasaki in rhyming text.

Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges.  Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bathhouse adulterers; heartbroken slatterns…

There were only a few times I felt there was a little too much exposition.  Mitchell’s writing is so strong that in a handful of places where it seemed weak, it really stood out.  For example, the characters seem to frequently tell their life stories in a way that seemed a little forced — but maybe this is the way working-class seamen would actually get to know each other.  And each character’s story is interesting in its own way, it’s just that the telling seems a little gratuitous –though that’s truly a small concern.  As described in the quote above, what Mitchell does really well is push the limits of English language and storytelling.  He switches back and forth between numerous characters, cultures, and dialects, so fluidly you hardly notice.  He creates villains, heroes, and everymen within every culture and class — no one is caricatured except maybe the evil Abbot Enomoto.

Mitchell switches the setting and point of view periodically and it takes some time and effort to figure out how the characters relate.  But as I’ve said, this isn’t an easy read; it’s a book that requires some effort but the effort is well worth it.  The book told only from Jacob’s point of view wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting or complex. I left this book feeling I’d been immersed in a place and time I’ve (obviously) never been.

How Jacob earns the respect of the men he works with, falls in love, loses everything, and takes a stand that nearly costs him his life, are only a few of the plot points in this long and very rewarding novel.

  6 comments for “Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

  1. April 29, 2011 at 11:33 am

    I ended up receiving this a few months ago from my MIL and I am looking forward to reading it but I think I’m just waiting till I’m in the right mood for a heavier read.

    • May 1, 2011 at 9:46 am

      It’s not necessarily a heavy read – Mitchell writes with a lot of humor. But definitely long and challenging.

  2. April 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    I love David Mitchell, I really do. I’m reading Ghostwritten right now, and am kind-of sad that I don’t have any other books of his left to read.

    Like you, I found this one to be a difficult albeit rewarding read. It covered so much ground, and it was so different from his other works, that I was awed. I can’t wait for his new book(s)…

    • May 1, 2011 at 9:47 am

      I still have Ghostwritten and Number9Dream to read. Let me know how you liked Ghostwritten.

  3. May 2, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I haven’t read anything by Mitchell yet, but I did just put this one on my library e-book wishlist!!! I’m looking forward to it!

  4. Jami Crittle
    October 9, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    I had the same experience for some reason. I read a few chapters, liked it but couldn’t engage, then started all over a few months later. I’m glad I persevered because it was beautiful. I’ve also had Cloud Atlas on my shelf for years and never given it any attention. I will be reading it.

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