In the opening scene of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Japanese midwife Orito Aibagawa is called in to a difficult labor. In 1799 Nagasaki she is unique: the only woman with the training and knowledge of the Dutch language that’s let her read about the unusual presentation in a book, and her prize for miraculously saving mother and child is to be allowed to set foot on Dejima, also unique and the site of the only Western trade allowed in Japan since the time of the Third Shogun.
The Dutch East India Company controls that trade, and the few Europeans on the island must remain there, closely guarded and spied on by a team of Japanese interpreter-bureaucrats. Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk from Zeeland, arrives there as the protegé of Chief Resident Vorstenbosch. Vorstenbosch has just deposed the previous Chief and has brought Jacob to clear up the mess that’s been made of the books over the past decade. As Jacob attempts to bring fair dealing to Dejima he makes a number of enemies, but the devout young man sticks to his principles even as they strand him in the inhospitable land mostly friendless and hopeless.
In the meantime he can’t help himself falling in love with Miss Aibagawa and attempting to meet and befriend her through her teacher, the irreverent and foxy Dr. Marinus. Jacob tells the doctor that he is interested in Miss Aibagawa as in “as a book whose cover fascinates, and in whose pages I desire to look, a little.” The clerk may be downplaying his feelings, even to himself, but in fact books are rather important in The Thousand Autumns. Jacob has snuck a Psalter past the censors at the risk of his life and that of his friendly interpreter, but the book has been passed down through generations and has demonstrated its power to save lives. A Dutch book brought Miss Aibagawa to Dejima, and it’s another Dutch book that Marinus uses to put her and Jacob together—and in rather an awkward position. Japan is so exotic that its scrolls, the native store of the written word, open clockwise—“back to front and topsy-turvy, like this whole blasted country…” And when the almost breathless second part of the novel sees Miss Aibagawa in danger it is more letters and scrolls that will defend her and ultimately ensure her safety.
There is much more of this, and along with other motifs threads like this one tie together a story that encompasses Dutch warehouses and isolated Shinto shrines, magistrates and noblemen and peasant women in thatched cottages, ginger-haired de Zoet and a redheaded Englishman killed on a ship-of-the-line thousands of miles across the planet. The narrative ranges from engrossing historical fiction to thriller to something like action or adventure, and the characters are both as sympathetic and as antipathetic as you’re apt to find.
The first time Jacob hears Miss Aibagawa pronounce his name, “I wish, he thinks, spoken words could be captured and kept in a locket.” Reading Mitchell, it seems safe to say they can.
Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls and treble-bolted doors. 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 hunch-backed 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.
The gulls continue their flight of assonance and consonance and sing-song and rhyme in an impossibly long sentence that trips over seemingly everything in Nagasaki and Dejima, until coming “around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.”
Things are not always quite so showy, and life for Jacob and his friends is not easy, but Japan is a magical country where the “florid names” for places, like “The Land of a Thousand Autumns” or “The Root of the Sun” “sound precise,” according to one of the English sailors who will appear after the Company’s bankruptcy to disrupt life in Dutch Dejima. The inhabitants have been marooned with no news, as isolated as the Japanese themselves, but European life has gone on all the same and won’t leave them out of things much longer.
And thus de Zoet’s “thousand autumns” cannot go forever undisturbed; most men in this novel do not control their own fate (nevermind the women). As a foreigner he can never belong in his home, or make a home where he belongs.
John Self, in his review of the novel at The Asylum, noted that “each of his first three novels, despite their inventiveness and compexity, seem to be less an ocean than a multitude of drops.” I think he would say The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet succeeds in this, but I am less sure. Mitchell is doubtless a great enchanter, but the novel seems to swirl with ideas: of exoticism, of stories, of the impermanence and untrustworthiness of the spoken word, of the solidity of the written—which carries great risk as well as reward—of love, of loyalty, of oppression large and small. To be sure, these drops coalesce into the ocean of life, both out here and in the novel, and being sucked under can be lovely. But like with his earlier work I’m left feeling like I’ve had both too much and not enough of a rich dish.
Thanks to LibraryThing and Random House for a review copy of this book.