Irish Writer David Mitchell is well-known for the narrative and stylistic gymnastics of his first four novels. His recently published book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet breaks that mold, and in what may be a surprise to many of his readers, dives headfirst into historical fiction, with a moderate helping of romance thrown in. Unlike the earlier books, particularly the Man Booker Prize finalist, Cloud Atlas, the new book unrolls its story in a linear and chronological framework bristling with fascinating history and little known cultural oddities of Shogunate Japan during the late 18th, early 19th centuries. This new book bypasses all the earlier symbolism and coincidence for straightforward narrative and strong storytelling.
The setting of Mitchell’s book is the small fan-shaped island of Dejima artificially built in the bay of Nagasaki in 1634. For 212 years, between 1641 and 1853, the island was a Dutch trading post, the doorway through which all foreign trade and exchange entered Japan. Foreigners were not allowed off the island by government decree.
In 1799, Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company arrives in Dejima to take up a post that is to last five years and earn him his fortune. He is saddled with the job of unraveling accounts in a company riddled with corruption. Unfortunately for him, his unbending honesty is at once challenged from all sides. Adding to these challenges is his infatuation with a young Japanese woman, a midwife who is studying with the famous Dutch doctor, Lucas Marinus. The young Dutchman learns quickly enough that his love for this woman is forbidden by not only law, but by tradition, culture and politics as well.
Mitchell’s main character is modeled upon Dutchman Hendrik Doeff who worked for the Dutch East Indies Company on Dejima from 1803 to 1818. But there might also be small measure of autobiography in the character, as Mitchell himself spent eight years in Japan, and has a Japanese wife.
The story shifts from one character to another in its unfolding, a method that opens windows for both reader and author to enter the particular world and mind of its Dutch, Japanese and English characters. Language is a doorway into the culture and thought of these characters, and to each speaker the writer applies an identifying flow, or non-flow of speech. You would almost have to say that language is huge in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In large part characters are built upon the language they speak. Comprehension and incomprehension are always at issue, whether it be about trade, medicine, laws, or the procedure of battle. A book that has been very deeply researched, it is crammed with detail and description of court intrigue, medical procedures, sailing ships, herbal remedies, and historical facts, as well as arcane tidbits about life in 18th century Japan.
Like Japan of the period from 1600 to 1867, Mitchell’s story is also wrapped inside the walls and concerns of a small corner of the world. There is nothing in its 479 pages that speaks of a wider world, nothing particularly symbolic of bigger issues, unless we put the honesty and bravery of its main character into that realm. In this light, the book might be described as narrow in an allegorical sense. But don’t let that deficiency put you off of reading a story of history, romance, betrayal, samurai raids, medicine, sailing ships, and every page exquisitely written.