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The Thousand Autumns
of Jacob de Zoet
Random House ($26)
by Ed Taylor
David Mitchell couldn’t be hotter. He surfs to the literary beach on The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet riding a tidal wave of acclaim and attention; at only forty-one, he is routinely compared by critics to giants such as Dickens, Tolstoy, and Pynchon. Mitchell seems a good soul in addition to a Promethean talent, based on a July 2010 profile in the New York Times Magazine. So a reader opens this handsome book featuring a woodblock cover illustration by revered 18th-century Japanese artist Hiroshige with, for better or worse, some expectations.
Is it “good”? Yes, unequivocably. Is it flawed? Yes, unequivocably. Does it raise distracting questions about itself outside of the world of its story? Yes.
Mitchell’s career-announcing book was The Cloud Atlas, a startling formal experiment with heart that managed to be about being human and also about the novel—a stylistic coup challenging and brilliantly playing with aesthetic conventions of both literature and art in productive, profound ways. The Thousand Autumns, by contrast, is a conventional historical novel, set in Nagasaki, Japan, from 1799 to 1817. Mitchell does indeed demonstrate Tolstoyan reach in creating a kind of Colonial Nagasaki akin to Colonial Williamsburg, a world so deeply imagined you can walk around in it.
The book’s axis is Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch East India Company clerk of intelligence and modesty and incorruptible morality, and his sailing to Dejima, an artificial island built off the coast of Nagasaki on which early European merchants were in essence quarantined so they could trade with Japan but not profane it by actually entering the country. (The island is currently being restored in Nagasaki to create an actual Colonial Nagasaki Historic Experience.) Only one trading ship a year was allowed by the Japanese to land, so service on Dejima was a test of will and the ability to triumph over cutthroat business dealings, disease, boredom, typhoons, earthquakes, and bad luck. Jacob takes this arduous five-year posting in order to make his fortune and return to the Netherlands to marry his true love Geertje, whose father disapproved of the well educated and morally upright but poor Jacob.
Jacob’s story is complex and wrenching, and related in the present tense; we are always (not just in Jacob’s sections) in the moment. And momentous things happen in this story—there is war (the clash of empires being a Big Theme here), and betrayal, and extensive cruelty, and, getting to one of the puzzling bits, a climactically sinister religious retreat. However, the author chooses to have much of the action in the story reported, via characters—at times related through “conversation” that reads more like exposition, a no-no taught in Novel Writing 101—and dialogue that others have pointed out is historically inaccurate. Regardless of historical inaccuracy (not necessarily a deal-breaker), more troublingly they often sound like characters in a book.
As a result the ornately wrought, careful observation is fully present for the reader, but feels at best like a neutral surface, and on occasion even disjunctive. There is deep emotion here, and life and death, and pain and joy and love, and the clash of cultures: all beautifully handled at the sentence level, but kept, perhaps too often, at the arms’ length distance of a museum’s objets.
While the writing is exquisite and the imagination Olympian, this is a novel that on occasion feels worked to within an inch of its life. This burnishing and stylistic self-awareness reach their apex near the book’s climax, in a narrative soliloquy in which a Japanese magistrate contemplates life as he faces his own death. “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.” What follows is a full page of intensely observed life that rhymes (a technique used nowhere else in the book—so the choice here raises questions). Is this brilliant, innovative style enriching an experience of the world, or self-conscious ornamentation that actually works against the content? (For what it’s worth: rhyme is grammatically difficult and uncommon in the Japanese language.)
Another conundrum is the previously mentioned sinister religious shrine, a mystery that slowly unfolds within what is essentially a story of yearning and unrequited love: Jacob falls for Orito, a disfigured Japanese midwife bravely studying, against all odds of both Japanese and European cultures, medicine. Orito is the link between West and East, and Jacob’s past and future, and between the parallel stories of Dejima and of Mount Shiranui Shrine, a mysterious mountain castle ruled by a powerful Lord Abbot and accessible to no one. Shiranui becomes increasingly gothic, as Orito the midwife is “traded” to the Abbot to pay family debts and taken by force to the mountain shrine, to what end no one knows.
The spooky cult of the shrine and its secret “12 Creeds” present a curious tonal shift from the close-grained quotidian life of Dejima and Nagasaki. Further complicating things is that as secrets are revealed, the Lord Abbot who sits like a spider at the center of the plot web begins to sound like Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon” movie serials of the 1930s. “Why do you mortal gnats suppose that your incredulity matters?” and “If you knew, Shiroyama, you horsefly, what you’ve done . . .” and “The creeds work, you human termite! Oil of souls works!” This “oil of souls” and how it is made is the mountain’s darkest secret, and this secret itself is also something, surprisingly, verging on melodrama.
The novel’s resolves, post-Shiranui, elegiacally and autumnally and beautifully. Mitchell is brilliant, and the fictive world here generally lives and breathes in ways that lesser mortals can only envy. You can indeed enjoy a prodigious talent here—if you can, to adapt a Buddhist concept, read with a light touch.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010