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
Continue reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell