Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell - A Review

Even after several books of inventive and epic speculative fiction, David Mitchell has outdone himself and written his most epic and ambitious work yet.  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set in 1799 on the island of Dejima, just off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan.  The story follows a clerk in the Dutch East Indies Trading Company, Jacob de Zoet, as he accounts for suspected fraudulent activity by many of the employees at the warehouses on Dejima.  Because de Zoet knows no Japanese, he and the other Dutch employees must rely on the Japanese translators in conducting the day-to-day business of trade; this, of course, can be a sticky situation when words are misconstrued. 

De Zoet also falls in love with a Japanese woman learning the art of midwifery, Aibagawa Orito.  Though Orito seems inclined to return de Zoet's favors, she is sold to a nunnery by Lord Enomoto, a powerful Japanese businessman, to pay for her father's debts after he dies.  There's something dark and mysterious happening at Shiranuai Shrine, where Orito lives, and it gives the story a powerful fantastical element.  Could Lord Enomoto be over 600 years old?

It's not really the question Mitchell's novel wants to answer, but it makes for an intriguing turn of events.  Japan was an isolated nation during this time with Dejima as its single European trading post; because of this, Japan's customs and her people seemed strange, otherworldly, certainly un-Christian, to the Western World.  Mitchell has stated that he wanted to give the reader both the West and the East ample points-of-view because, too many times, a story like this concerning both sides is too narrow.  He does this by breaking the novel into parts - the first and last half are seen through mostly de Zoet's eyes, with a few other narrative points-of-view thrown in from the Dutch and English; the middle section follows Orito and Osawa, the Japanese translator who had asked for Orito's hand in marriage but was denied by his own father.  Even before Orito is sold to the nunnery, Ogawa and de Zoet become friends, but afterward, their relationship takes on a deeper meaning, when Ogawa asks de Zoet to hide a scroll detailing the strange and wicked tenants of Shiranuai Shrine and of Lord Enomoto's great sins.  By the end, there is a certain understanding, a kind of familiarity, despite what is lost in translation, between de Zoet and Ogawa, as if the bridge between East and West, between the island of Dejima and the city of Nagasaki has been traversed.

The Thousand Autumns...has just about everything you could want from an epic: a battle at sea; unrequited love; a mountain escape; a game of go; a sinister lord; explosions and beatings; etc.  But what the novel is ultimately about is: principles.  Despite being thrown into the mix of rascals and ruffians, miscreants and ne'er-do-wells, de Zoet, Orito, and Ogawa follow simple principles - honor, honesty, and hard work - and hoping these principles are the foundations of a good life.

Final Verdict: Fantastically well-written and engaging. Even the smell of the pages - like fresh leaves - was great.

-Dustin J Monk

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