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Posts Tagged ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’

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

Sceptre

ISBN: 9780340921579

469 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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The Longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize has been announced.  It’s a wide-ranging and interesting ‘Booker Dozen’, ie: 13 novels. 

Peter Carey gets his expected nod for Parrot and Olivier in America, as does Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap.  There are no first-time novelists.  Interestingly, Ian McEwan’s Solar misses out. 

As ever, the prize is determined by the group of judges assembled each year.  This year’s prize is chaired by Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate, and features some highly qualified judges to assist him.  I think we should see a very exciting shortlist and winner if the longlist is anything to go by.  What price another Carey win?    

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan – Picador)

Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin – Fig Tree)

Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic – Atlantic Books)

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy The Long Song
(Headline Publishing Group – Headline Review)

Tom McCarthy C (Random House – Jonathan Cape)

David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  (Hodder & Stoughton – Sceptre)

Lisa Moore February (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin – Hamish Hamilton)

Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic – Tuskar Rock)

Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky
(Random House – Jonathan Cape)

I usually don’t get excited by longlists, but this one looks very strong.  I’m particularly interested in the wonderfully packaged Skippy Dies by Paul Murray -widely said to be hilarious.  Also, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has had quite good reviews.  But the overwelhming early favourite is The Long Song
by Andrea Levy.  What are your thoughts on the list? 

The D!

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Well, day three down and four more interesting sessions to muse on:

1. Marie Munkara: in conversation with Irina Dunn – A very entertaining chat.  Irina had done her homework and Marie was very engaging.  She also read a few sections from her award winning book Every Secret Thing.  The book recently won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award and also won the David Unaipon (the first published indigenous author and the man on the $50 Australian note) Award for unpublished indigenous authors.  The story centres on the Catholic missionaries in aboriginal communities, and is laced with vibrant humour.  Marie was born on a riverbank of mixed parentage.  She told us how her mother had been “promised” from birth to an aboriginal man (who had multiple wives), but refused to marry her and was sent away with the newborn Marie in shame to Tiwi Islands.  But Marie was separated from her mother when aged three and was raised a Catholic.  Needless to say, the mission clergy don’t get an easy ride in her book!  The book’s second half becomes a lot darker, tracing the demise of the aboriginal community as alcohol is introduced.  Marie talked of how she was then reunited with her mother at the age of 25 – at which point she had to learn all her culture from scratch (and almost re-learn her languages too).  Marie knows many aboriginals who still struggle to find their own place after being raised in the missions.  Fortunately for her, and us, she has found her place, and I went straight to Gleebooks to purchase Every Secret Thing.  Stay tuned for a review. 

2. Peter Carey in Conversation with John Freeman (editor of Granta).  It always interesting hearing Peter Carey talk – as well as read from his novels.  Here he was talking of his recent work Parrot and Olivier in America.  He said he had been asked many times when he was going to write an ‘American’ novel, and had one on the go which he wasn’t enjoying when the idea for True History of the Kelly Gang came to him.  So he dropped the former and went with Kelly – to much success and acclaim of course, winning the Booker Prize for the second time.  It was after this that he began to return to the American theme and what better theme to tackle than Democracy.  The book is based on Alexis De Tocqueville’s travels to America where he wrote Democracy in America amongst two other works.  Carey talked of his horror of the Bush-Chaney Presidency and noted that whilst De Tocqueville’s more affirming viewpoints on democracy are well-known in the US, he was actually quite ambivalent about democracy and saw its ills, noting his worries about the position of the President itself.  Said Carey: “De Tocqueville saw [Sarah] Palin coming.”(!)  There followed a discussion on the relationship between ‘free will’ & ‘free markets’, Carey seeing the ills of the capitalist machine – including its vice-like grip on government.  In writing Parrot and Olivier in America, Carey said he was most concerned with getting the voice of Olivier right – the voice of an aristocratic Frenchman – but in the end he said it was a matter of class, and here he drew on his own experience of the differences between Geelong Grammar – perhaps the finest private school in the country, and certainly home to many of the Australian ‘elite’ (though I shudder to use such a term) – and his upbringing in Bacchus Marsh, an interesting insight into how an author draws on their experience, no matter how oblique, and renders their story from both memory and imagination.  In the end, Carey quite enjoyed writing Olivier.  (The voice of Parrot, he said, was ‘less of a stretch’.)  John Freeman opened the session by stating that he thought the book Carey’s best.  Well, it’s good, but it’s not that good.  Illywhacker, Oscar & Lucinda, and True History are better books in my opinion, and I quite enjoyed Jack Maggs and even his first novel Bliss too.  That said, Parrot and Olivier is a far better book than his recent work, so it was a welcome enjoyment.  Today’s session was interesting, but it lacked something, perhaps John could have done a better job – having enjoyed Irina and Marie’s conversation (see above), this seemed slightly inferior.   

3.  ‘Writing Short’ – Pasha Malla & Steve Amsterdam with Mandy Sayer – a nice session with both authors reading a short story from their collected stories books and discussing with Mandy the short form – though as Pasha noted, it seems difficult to talk about the short story without talking about its big brother – the novel – too!  Mandy made one of the more interesting observations when she posited that people prefer the long stories because they ‘don’t like endings’ – readers love to invest themselves in the company of characters for a time.  That said, with everyone’s attention spans shortening seemingly by the day, perhaps the short story will be the preferred format (until, of course, we can’t cope with that and poetry usurps it!). 

4. ‘A Wombat at My Table’ – Jackie French talking with Geoffrey Lehmann.  Okay, so every now and then I like to go to something completely left-field!  And one thing’s for sure, you cannot come into contact with Jackie French and not be in any doubt as to her passion for wombats.  She has written stories for children, as well as her adult memoir A Year in the Valley.  Geoffrey also read a lovely poem featuring wombats that was published in New Yorker. I came out knowing a lot more about something and had quite a few laughs in the process.  Good fun.

I had wanted to get into ‘Still the Lucky Country’ but you have to line up pretty early for the free events, particularly on the weekend, although I had the same issue on Thursday with one session too.  Oh well, you can’t get to everything.  If anyone was there, let me know how you found it.

What are your SWF highlights?  Let me know!

More to come tomorrow, the final day of SWF2010, including a session on Roberto Bolano which I’m quite looking forward to. 

The D!

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