The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell‘s fifth book is a historical romance which, while displaying some of the narrative tricks, symbolism and motifs for which the author is renowned, nevertheless resists the structural virtuosities of his earliest novels. The Thousand Autumns – a phrase referring to Japan itself – of Jacob de Zoet is quite literally the Japan of the central character as set at the turn of the (western) eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a Japan desirous of closing itself from external eyes and influence and which yet still makes its mark on those it allows to engage with it.

The novel commences with a powerful opening drama which not so much sets the scene for the novel but whose purpose is to set out its theme: the conundrum of modernisation: to live and thrive, Japan must open itself up to the outside world; the comforts of isolation and of primitive belief can only hold it back. Even so, those are choices that may not necessarily be those which are taken.

This tale is told in three actually quite distinct, but narratively linked parts, recalling the structural innovations of the earlier novels, and with two final codas bringing the story to a close and wrapping up loose ends both as relating to the characters and to the novel’s theme. The ending is beautiful at the level of the characters, as well as ultimately hopeful with regard to the novel’s central theme.

Outside the novel, tiny, claustrophobic and cacophonous Dejima was a genuine place, while its third section is based on a real life incident – the incursion of HMS Phaeton into Nagasaki Bay, and for similar geo-political purposes, which took place eight years after the events described in the book, adding relevance to the novel and to the historical narrative.

Mitchell’s writing style is engaging, drawing the reader in to the action both by the interplay between the characters and the description of the action. The novel is profoundly researched, influenced by Mitchell’s clear love for the country in which he has spent a considerable amount of time – yet is never showy about its learning. It is written with startling confidence, with great wit and humour, a visceral vivacity, and yet is also deeply moving. One innovatory device that Mitchell uses well is to halt the dialogue, or the action, to describe in one line what is happening elsewhere, tangentially. The effect is to heighten the dramatic tension, to bring a scene alive with a Bhuddist (or Japanese) sensitivity to nature, or otherwise simply to make time freeze. The scenes between the eponymous hero and his Japanese love interest describe an exquisite tenderness.

In a historical novel, good characterisation is essential to the credibility of the tale and of the events re-created in and by it. From the ribald drunkenness of the Dutch traders at play to the sisterly concern of the nuns at the shrine, to the cold villainy of the Abbot and the casual racism of the western characters both on land and at sea, and to the stubborn, gentlemanly honour of de Zoet himself and the courteous authority of the English Captain, Mitchell’s characters leap off the page at you: they are alive and convincingly have their own lives separate from the whims of the author.

There are a couple of problems: would a woman with a facial disfigurement really have been able to be a midwife in the 18th century – or would people’s fears and superstitions have precluded that? And the usual spelling of this temple (p. 237/238; hardback edition) is Sanjusangendo. And the polymath Marinus, despite his talents, is surely not gifted with insight into novels only written later. But these are minor gripes: Mitchell’s reputation as one of the most distinct and accomplished story-tellers of his generation is absolutely enhanced by this work.

[Edit 27 July: And now long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker as well, along with the new Andrea Levy, which is also in my reading pile, and the Rose Tremain, which might yet be…]

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