The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: review

October 7, 2010

David Mitchell announced himself in spectacular fashion in 1999 when he published his first novel Ghostwritten: a novel in nine parts  that begins with an apocalyptic Japanese cult member launching an attack on the Tokyo underground and goes on to spin stories in locations from Mongolia to Petersburg, London and California. What was remarkable was not just the brilliance of the  nine stories, but the narrative device he used to link them (I will not reveal it here) – a device that compels readers, having finished the book, to  plunge back into it, hunting for the clues that enable them to piece the whole story together. 

Mitchell backed up with number9dream, the story of a  hapless young Japanese man searching for his mother who gets mixed up in computer hacking and Yakuza warfare. Then came Cloud Atlas (2003), a novel that plunges backwards and  forwards in time, comprising six stories that are wildly diverse but ingeniously linked:  a mid-20th century composer, a clone at some future date, a teenage boy in post-apocalypse Hawaii, an investigative journalist in 1970s California … Mitchell says he was inspired to write this novel by Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, a novel consisting entirely of first chapters: Mitchell enjoyed the novel but wanted to know how Calvino’s stories ended, so his take on the concept, Cloud Atlas, includes both the first and second half of all six stories, with the whole novel structured like a Russian doll.

By now keen Mitchell fans were spotting the connections between the books. The investigative journalist of Cloud Atlas, Luisa Rey, had appeared briefly in Ghostwritten; the Mongolian hitman of Ghostwritten, Subhataar, continued his deadly work in number9dream; the comic vanity publisher Tim Cavendish, a bit player in Ghostwritten, got a story of his own in Cloud Atlas.  It was becoming clear that all Mitchell’s novels were part of one vast supra-novel, a fiendishly clever, interconnected body of work that presumably will continue to increase in complexity for as long as he writes.

Mitchell had developed a reputation as a gifted ventriloquist who could create any narrative voice, from 18th century sailor to 22nd century clone. So it was a surprise when he published Black Swan Green in 2006, a relatively straightforward (for Mitchell) novel about a shy, stammering teenager experiencing the difficulties of adolescence in England in the 1980s. Even in this novel – which differed from its predecessors in having only one narrator -  Mitchell’s taste for intertextuality was evident: the teenage protagonist, Jason, meets an elderly lady, Madame Crommelynck, who tells him of her relationship with Robert Frobisher, the dissolute composer of Cloud Atlas. It should be added that this novel is marked by an emotional depth not always achieved by Mitchell’s previous novels, brilliant as they were.

Now we have Mitchell’s latest offering, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In this novel, Mitchell has returned to a setting he clearly relishes, Japan. The first of the three sections is set in 1799 on Dejima, an artificial island created by the Japanese in Nagasaki Harbour to enable trade to take place with the Dutch, as no foreigners are allowed on Japanese soil. A naive and principled young clerk, Jacob de Zoet, arrives on Dejima hoping to build a career and make his fortune. He finds himself surrounded by corruption, cruelty, deception and political intrigue: the Dutch officials are all on the take, and obsessed with increasing the value of trade, while the Japanese society is paralysed by hierarchy and tradition. Mitchell dramatises the conflict between cultures brilliantly in the negotiations that take place in the Hall of Sixty Mats.

Moving between the two groups are the interpreters, one of whom is named Kobayashi (who shares the name of the death cult acolyte in Ghostwritten). De Zoet befriends a curmudgeonly doctor named Marinus, who epitomises Enlightenment values, and falls in love with Marinus’s only female student, a gifted midwife named Orito Aibagawa. He also crosses the path of a creepy abbot named Enomoto, who operates a shrine in the mountains and speaks mysteriously of souls and “affinity”.

De Zoet’s love for Aibagawa cannot be fulfilled as she is kidnapped by Enomoto and removed from Dejima. In the over-long second section of the book  she is a prisoner in Enomoto’s shrine, where she joins a group of disfigured women that the Abbot is keeping as part of an obscure, fantastic cultish scheme. This section is reminiscent of the ‘Orison of Sonmi’ section of Cloud Atlas,  which involves young female clones enslaved for a macabre project by a fast food company. Indeed, the theme of imprisonment and attempts to escape from it occurs frequently in Mitchell’s work.  Aibagawa too tries to get away, assisted by a magical grey cat (enigmatic, knowing animals crop up a lot  in Mitchell) but is unable to go through with it, knowing that her midwifery skills are needed by her fellow inmates. At the same time, another young man who is in love with Aibagawa, an interpreter (and friend of de Zoet) Uzaemon, sets out on a hare-brained attempt to rescue her, armed with a scroll written by a disaffected disciple who has revealed what is really going on at the shrine.

The third and best section concerns a British frigate, the Phoebus,  that launches an attack on Dejima, by now under the command of De Zoet. This section is based on a historical event known as The Phaeton Incident. De Zoet discovers unexpected depths of courage as he and Marinus face down the gouty English captain, Penhaligon; he has another meeting with Aibagawa, whom he has continued to love all this time.

The novel embraces many of the elements that Mitchell has become famous for through his earlier novels. There is the sheer pleasure of reading a good story well told – ‘the heart craves love and the mind craves stories’ as Aibagawa puts it – though I do feel he spins out the shrine section at tedious length, and its denouement is a shade predictable. 

He is fascinated by what happens when cultures collide, and the difficulties people have understanding each other across culture - whether in love affairs, through diplomacy, or in master-slave relationships. One of the Dutchmen’s slaves tries to work out what makes the white men tick:

For White men, to live is to own, or to try to own more, or to die trying to own more. Their appetites are astonishing! They own wardrobes, slaves, carriages, houses, warehouses and ships … They own this world, its jungles, its skies and its seas. Yet they complain that Dejima is a prison. They complain they are not free.

Most intriguingly, Mitchell circles constantly around metaphysical questions. As we already knew after Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, he is interested in souls, the nature of which is explored again here:

‘Doctor, do you believe in the Soul’s existence?’
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. ‘Yes.’
‘Then where,’ Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton, ‘…is it?’
‘The soul is a verb,’ he impales a lit candle on a spike, ‘not a noun.’

The question is whether Mitchell refers to  reincarnation, affinity of souls and the like simply as a handy narrative device, or whether he truly expects his readers to give credence to such concepts outside the world of fiction. In interviews he is cagey about the subject (I’ve linked to one below).  “The soul is a verb, not a noun” is a nice line, but what  does it actually mean?

Another trait much in evidence in Jacob de Zoet is Mitchell’s delight in enumerating obscure bits of knowledge. He is a self-confessed nerd and loves spouting lists of instruments, nautical terms, and other lore he has acquired in his research:

The loblolly, a pock-scarred Londoner called Rafferty, stands, putting to one side the tray of tenaculums, ball-scoops and bone-rasps he is oiling. ‘Afternoon, sir: the Surgeon’s down on the orlop deck.’ 

And there is the sheer pleasure in language – its sound and its metaphorical possibilities. If you were to create a continuum of writers ranging from ‘plain’ to ‘ornate’, with Carver and Hemingway at one end, Mitchell would be off the scale at the other.

Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.

A gibbous moon is grubby. Stars are bubbles, trapped in ice. The old pine is gnarled and malign.

The taste for baroque language, never more manifest than in this book, reaches a crescendo towards its close when he embarks on an extraordinary Dylanesque riff on Dejima:

 Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs …

And so on, for a page and a half. It’s an amazing performance, and more than just an audacious language game: if the point of rhyme is to make a connection between two things that are otherwise unrelated, then the point of Mitchell’s work is that everything  is connected, across time, across cultures, across space. Perhaps this is part of what he means by the line that completes this section:

This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

Whether one is convinced by this theory or not, it is enormously enjoyable to accompany Mitchell as he explores it.

A podcast interview with David Mitchell on the BBC’s World Book Club (mainly about Cloud Atlas) can be heard here.

An interview with Mitchell about Jacob de Zoet is on Goodreads here.

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