Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is desire. It is sacrifice, honor and poetry. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is humor within research. It is massive in both physical size and narrative scope, and it is a lingering, gratifying read. And despite all these wonderful qualities, I might never have checked out the book had it not been for a Rumpus interview with David Mitchell. I’d heard of him at that point, but I’d never read anything by him. With answers like these, I realized the glaring gap in my reading repertoire:

“Books are made of changes of minds. The actual writing of the book, I’ve found, teaches you how you should have written the book.”


“Possibly novelists are all aliens among natives. We should all wear little signs around our necks that mark us as aliens. It happened a few weeks ago, where I completely lost it and I was sobbing my eyes out. I happened to glance and there was a mirror in the corner of the room. I stopped crying and looked in the mirror—oh, so that’s what grief looks like. That’s something only a novelist would do—or an alien. But to get back to what you said… I would say one must be someone else to a certain degree to portray that character convincingly, his voice and his thoughts. The implication of your question is that one needs to escape oneself. I don’t think that is the case for me.”

Never mind that I rarely read anything that could be classified as “historical” (recent reviews notwithstanding), suddenly I had to read a novel set in 1799 Dutch-occupied Japan. Nestled in the new books section at my local library, all 479 pages called to me. My heart burned beyond a mere hunch — David Mitchell would be one of my favorite authors. I would immerse myself in his words, his world, and I would not much mind the month I spent reading de Zoet. I knew this before I made my way to the checkout counter, disappointment only a faint consideration.

Thank goodness I liked the book, yeah?

For all that we hear about British occupied lands and their Empire during the infancy of the United States, one forgets that the Dutch had their own world domination designs. In Dejima, a trading port in Nagasaki Harbor, the “Zeelanders” have felt their power slip. Populated by deceitful merchants and distrustful Japanese, the people coexist only semi-amicably in order to maintain their respective finances. Amidst them lives Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk to the Chief Resident. During his five year post, he hopes to earn enough money to satisfy his fiancee’s father back home.

When he meets Orito Aibagawa, a local midwife, his visions for the future begin to change. Unsettled as he is by his mental infidelity, he must know this woman. His world is now filtered through the light and shortening of breath he feels in her presence.

Night insects trill, tick,bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
Hanzaburo snores in the cubbyhole outside Jacob’s door.
Jacob lies awake, clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.
Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue’s root; wa, lips.
Involuntarily, he reenacts today’s scene over and over.
He cringes at the boorish figure he cut and vainly edits the script.
He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.
The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.
A watchman smacks his wooden clappers to mark the Japanese hour.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese, half-Dutch window...
... Glass panes melt moonlight; paper panes filter it, to dust.

Mitchell injects bits of poetry into his prose, and it never feels awkward or ostentatious. When time slows for Jacob and he absorbs the minutiae of the moment, one may find a rhyme scheme or more involved imagery. Between the masterful way in which he threads these literary bits of style and the different points of view, the amount of research involved in writing de Zoet is all the more impressive.

In interviews, Mitchell has talked about the difficulty in conveying an accurate sense of the way people talked, without their words distracting the reader. That early19th century people would say “Gadzooks!” does not matter when the 21st century person will too busy giggling to care as much about why the character exclaimed. Though the more formal overall tone takes some acclimating, the distinct voices from the different characters are never distracting, unless one is busy thinking how good they are.

“Twould bend company rules on private trade, aye, but the trees what survive cruel winds are those what do bend, eh, are they not?”

“A tidy metaphor does not make a wrong thing right.”

But forget about the writing for a moment. Really, it is other writers and reviewers who spend significant amounts of time dissecting the craft. What of the story? Jacob de Zoet may at first be the primary voice one hears, but others are quick to share what brought them to Dejima. Jacob befriends a Japanese interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, a man who finds his work rewarding, though not quite enough to satisfy his longing:

“But Mr. de Zoet may pass through sea gate and away, over ocean. But I — all Japanese [...] prisoners all life, who plot to leave is executed. Who leave and return from abroad is executed. My precious wish is one year in Batvia, to speak Dutch... to eat Dutch, to drink Dutch, to sleep Dutch. Just one year...”

Everyone in the port town wants something, and some are willing to lie, while others hold steadfast to their integrity to achieve it. At the moment Jacob decides to make his intentions to Miss Aibigawa known, she is sent away to a mysterious and isolated mountain shrine. The unfolding details concerning the shrine are what make up the meat of the story, and are what propel the pages forward. Yes, there are still concerns regarding the Dutch occupation, and the conflict between East and West, but Mitchell has not written a simple historical novel. At the heart of everything is communication — what we understand about one another, the struggle against the unknown, and what we choose to withhold. Even the more reprehensible characters are fighting their own battles, and while one may not feel the same empathy towards them, their toil is understandable. And despite the seriousness throughout, Mitchell also provides subtle humor — overbearing mothers, card game insults and sarcasm transcend time, really. I invite you all to use the word “cockchafer” at your earliest convenience.

Though I have yet to read David Mitchell’s other novels, I still feel like my favorite has yet to come. That’s not to disparage anything about de Zoet, but for making me love a story I might have otherwise ignored, I can only guess that his more modern settings will leave me lacking in the adequate vocabulary to describe their greatness. This is high and hypothetical praise, I know, but my head and my heart are in agreement.

And on a superficial note, I may be a bit smitten with Mitchell’s author photo shot by Paul Stuart:

All right, I’m a lot smitten, but then, talented, English 40-something men have a way of doing that to me. Does it matter what an author looks like? Not really. We’re the tribe of comfortable pants and inarticulate real-life conversations, after all. But with David Mitchell, it’s one more (albeit small) reason to pick up his books. A bonus, if you will. Get in.


This was a library book. Support your local libraries!

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.


  1. Wow, this sounds amazing. I wish I could live my life narrated by David Mitchell...

  2. No kidding. I'd love to have a conversation with him.