The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Random House: 484 pp., $26
David Mitchell’s new work, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” is conventional in more ways than one. Not only is the novel, set in Japan at the end of the 18th century, the least experimental book the British novelist has ever written — in fact, it cleanly passes as “historical fiction” — but with each passing book, he embraces a new genre, an innovative approach to fiction that has become the two-time Booker finalist’s quirky signature. Throughout his barely decade-long career, the 41-year-old has moved limberly from one literary form to another. After the high-wire sampling of disparate genres in his formally daring Calvino- and Murakami-soaked “Cloud Atlas” (2004), who could have foreseen the intimate 2006 “Black Swan Green,” a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of a stuttering 13-year-old in Thatcher’s England?
Like “Black Swan Green,” Mitchell’s new book is more verbal calisthenics than structural gymnastics. It almost completely forgoes the first-person voice that Mitchell mastered in his prior work and limits itself to a short span of years (a nanosecond compared to the centuries-jumping “Cloud Atlas”) and a few locales in and off Japan.
It is 1799 and the eponymous hero is a pious clerk from Holland during the waning days of the Dutch East Indies Co.'s trade monopoly with shogun-era Japan. The country’s terra firma has yet to re-welcome the footprints of foreigners, so most of “Thousand Autumns” takes place on Dejima, the tiny island in Nagasaki’s harbor where perforce exchanges of all sorts (mercantile, military, linguistic) take place. This little patch is a strange floating world of its own, a cramped universe containing the swindling Dutch company officials and their warehouses, gouty sailors speaking in salty doggerel, Asian magistrates and chamberlains, Japanese interpreters and a small contingency of East Asian slaves. There is also a half-civilized ape, called William Pitt, that first appears in the novel holding a bloody, freshly amputated leg courtesy of Dejima’s resident Dutch surgeon, Marinus.
The clerk Jacob de Zoet has embarked on his career in the East to earn the guilders and esteem that will allow him to marry a sweetheart back home, and his superiors exploit his gullibility by asking him to work on a chronicle of petty corruption (a trick that exonerates the company’s senior figures). His naiveté leads to a stunning inability to read the allegiances and motivations of those around him, setting in course their betrayal of him and his exile in Dejima. “The Orient is all about signals,” one character muses, a theme running through “Thousand Autumns.” The novel is a fiasco of missed signals and worse misunderstandings. Some are comical, as the Japanese go-betweens struggle to comprehend and translate Dutch phrases such as “impotent” and “proof positive,” but many have grave consequences.
Mitchell milks this sense of tragedy in the second section of the novel, when a feudal warlord enslaves Orito, the Japanese midwife whom De Zoet has fallen for, in a bizarre mountaintop nunnery where ritual baby-harvesting (euphemistically called “The Engiftment”) and murder are practiced. De Zoet undertakes to rescue her with the help of his closest Japanese interpreter friend, who organizes a commando-style mission undone by yet another act of betrayal and subterfuge. It’s hard to know what Mitchell had in mind with this melodramatic detour into a comic-book Japonica of Shinto exoticism and Asian despotism, but it points to the author’s unexpectedly weak handling of a crowded cast and twisting plot. The narrative is pockmarked with too many meanwhile-back-at-the-temple leaps, and the thread shows too often when Mitchell tries to stitch together the book’s set pieces and character studies. In his earlier books, the disconnect of stories across time and space were fascinatingly and proddingly jarring. Here, they’re frequently just jarring.
Which isn’t to say that “Thousand Autumns” is a flop — far from it. When not tripping over the intricacies of its plot line, the novel features some of Mitchell’s most luscious writing yet. For all the baroque movement of the story, the language is an exercise in extravagant control. Little flashes of haiku illuminate the text (“a night-soil man’s buckets, swinging on his pole, stain the air”), and Mitchell interrupts his characters’ thoughts with his own aperçus that have the feel of tiny punches. They have a cumulative effect. Walking through Dejima, De Zoet “smells steamed rice, sewage, incense, lemons, sawdust, yeast and rotting seaweed.” In one beautiful passage, Mitchell laconically notes: “The incandescent sun is caged by a glowing bay tree.” Later and more ominously we’re told that “the yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese, half-Dutch window.” And in a bravura moment in which Mitchell switches to first-person narration, a Sumatran slave philosophizes on what it means to have a name and on what part of himself a person can actually be said to possess. Having had everything else taken from him, the slave consoles himself with the sovereign pleasure of owning his own thoughts: “So I created a mind like an island … protected by deep blue sea. On my mind-island, there are no bad-smelling Dutchmen, or sneering Malay servants or Japanese men.” Islands — and thinking — become their own forms of defiance.
But the island of Dejima can never bask in a protective sea. It’s a zone of cultural contact where change is violently foreshadowed. The midwife Orito’s teacher is the surgeon Marinus, also a learned philospher and an irascible naturalist who could have jumped ship from Richard Holmes’ “The Age of Wonder.” The scientific progress he represents is accompanied by surgical blood and gore (gleefully operating on an unanesthetized sailor, Marinus triumphantly holds up his booty, a gallstone “as big as an acorn and the yellow of a diseased tooth”). Dejima is cast as a showdown between Enlightenment and Engiftment. When an English ship arrives to wrest the island from Dutch control, its captain growls about blasting the Japanese into the 19th century. Unknown to him but already quite clear to Orito and De Zoet and the 21st century reader, upheaval doesn’t always require gunboats and cannon shot.
Banks is the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based former editor of Bookforum.