First and foremost, I have to doff my hat to the cover art of this book. It is a wonderful design and the iridescent aqua that shimmers as you move the book in your hands is very alluring. Full marks.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a beautifully lyrical title. Set in Japan the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the story surrounds a Dutch East India clerk, Jacob de Zoet, who finds himself stationed in the company’s Japanese trading beachhead in Dejima, Nagasaki. (‘The Thousand Autumns’ is one of the names that Japan is poetically known as, so we effectively have a title that means: ‘The Japan of Jacob de Zoet’.)
Jacob is a straight-laced nephew of a minister out to prove his worth to his father-in-law-to-be, so that on his return from the Far East he can marry Anna. He quickly realises he is in a viper’s nest in the small island, named Dejima, that the company trades from in Nagasaki, surrounded by unscrupulous men from all corners, all of whom are on the make. Foreigners must stay on the island and are forbidden to learn Japanese or smuggle any religious iconography into Japan.
In the early pages, Mitchell creates a very interesting foundation for the story – the intersection of cultures and religious viewpoints in changing times, with liberal dashes of humour. Dejima is full of suspicious traders, translators, strange customs, spies and forbidden love.
Soon after landing, Jacob finds Orito, a Japanese woman with a burn scar on her cheek, who is learning midwifery from a Dutch doctor. He is instantly attracted to her. But she is unattainable. Relationships with Japanese women are forbidden. The first third of the novel sets up this relationship well. Jacob frets over his fiancé in Holland, whilst secretly wondering how to show his favour to a woman her cannot have. He paints her picture on a fan she leaves behind in a ware house and gets the fan back to her. Even this small act is policed, and it is only when the women tells an officer that, ‘yes, it is my fan’, does the officer not bother to inspect it. If he had, both of them would have been in a world of trouble. A dictionary is Jacob’s next gift.
The writing itself is mixed. In parts, it is lovely, but in others, many descriptions of the natural environment seem rather neglected—they are cursory and over in less than a line. For example: “Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting”. More successful is: (p15) Nagasaki: “wood-grey and mud-brown, looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes.”
Early on, there are wonderful sprinkles of humour too. In describing one of the dismissed company chief’s presence at the local brothel on the night one of the trading whare houses burns to the ground and the mystery of where the fire engine was that night, one of the men wonder whether the chief (p11) had taken “the engine to … impress the ladies with the size of his hose”. And this: (p25) “No need for contracts or such stuff: a gentleman’ll not break his word. Until later ….” The wonderful ‘until later’ is said as a goodbye, but in this world of nefarious dealings and untrustworthy colleagues it serves as an ironic warning also.
The book is dotted with pictures to aid out view of the action. Dejima is drawn for us, and we get to see Jacob’s drawings of Orito. The handful of pictures adds to our understanding of this environment.
There are wonderfully drawn characters, from the wary, powerful, and inaccessible Japanese, to the rough and ready men of the company – including Dutch doctors, Prussians, Irish and English rogues — and a gout suffering captain of the English frigate Phoebus that surprises both the Dutch and Japanese when it sails into Nagasaki harbour later in the story.
But, but, but: after the promising beginning, we have a rather indulgent middle section — which deals with the fate of Orito after the Powerful Japanese Magistrate Lord Enamoto moves against her after the death of her father, and the efforts on the part of one of the Japanese interpreters, Ogawa Uzaemon, to save her. This section reads more like a literary hostage story and is quite at odds with the earlier section. We are taken out of Dejima and Jacob’s world and though we want to know how Orito’s terrible fate is settled, Jacob does not feature and it suffers for it.
The Thousand Autumns was long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize but did not make it through to the short list. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of his earlier novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas — and, moreover, doesn’t match Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America which did make it through to the shortlist.
That said, I liked the ending of The Thousand Autumns and am looking forward to Mitchell’s next work and a nod from the Booker judges.
The Dilettante’s Rating: 3/5
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).