Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet begins in a fairly disarming manner -- at least, it's disarming if you've read any of Mitchell's previous novels. Gone is Cloud Atlas's melange of science fiction/noir and Black Swan Green's delicate coming-of-age intimacy. In their place is seemingly straight-up historical fiction, set in late-1700s Japan and dealing with the trading relations between "The Land of a Thousand Autumns" and the Dutch.
Mitchell has said that the idea for this novel began to germinate when he came across a history of the Dutch isle of Dejima — a small area of land just outside Nagasaki that was home to Dutch traders but still the property of Japan itself. In fact, to go in or out of Dejima, one had to pass through several checkpoint gates to ensure that no illegal (i.e. Christian) texts or materials could pass from the Dutch to the Japanese. This constant friction between cultures plays a huge role in the novel, and it's no surprise that Mitchell found this fertile ground for an intriguing plot and captivating characters.
At the story's outset, Jacob de Zoet, an up-and-coming Dutch clerk with the Dutch East India Company, is sent to Dejima to help clean up their recordkeeping and ensure that no individual employees are making profits at the company's expense. He is quiet, observant, and sincere — quite different from the coarse, uneducated men that make up the bulk of the Dutch entourage on Dejima. Where other men are only concerned with making money and spending it on exotic prostitutes, Jacob finds himself drawn to a Japanese woman training to be a doctor (in spite of guiltily remembering his fiancee back home). This relationship sets the real meat of the plot in motion, and Mitchell doesn't ease up on the tension the rest of the way.
I'll admit to being skeptical of the book's ability to hold my attention after the first 40 or 50 pages, but this is because Mitchell uses these first pages to establish the basic cultural dynamic between the Dutch and Japanese. Grasping the historical ramifications of this intercultural collision is crucial — not only to understanding the themes that Mitchell is playing with throughout the book, but to fully connect with the characters' trials and tribulations the rest of the way. By methodically showing us at the outset of the novel how outwardly different in custom and costume the two cultures are, he makes the personal similarities between characters on each side of this cultural divide that much more apparent in subsequent chapters. This wouldn't have worked if the author had been only acquainted with the cultures in passing, but Mitchell is obviously well-versed in Japanese and Dutch history, providing thousands of minor details that coalesce into breathtaking panoramas of Nagasaki and Dejima. It's beautiful writing.
What I found most compelling while reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is that while the Dutch and Japanese cultures could not be more different (having never come into contact with each other before), the choices made by characters from each culture all hinge on the same basic fears and loves. All these single, seemingly insignificant choices ultimately lead to monstrous revelations for both the Dutch and Japanese, until the novel sheds its historical-fiction garb and reveals itself as an incredibly suspenseful, intricately structured look at early international relations — itself a metaphor for the inner struggle going on in each character's soul. I'll never doubt a David Mitchell novel again.
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