I have loved David Mitchell. He wowed me with Cloud Atlas (I was not one who thought it was mere gimickry). And even though many thought it to be a lesser work, a kind of break from ambitious writing, I also loved Black Swan Green, his wonderfully structured and wonderfully described narrative of a small English town in the early 1980s told by a stuttering young boy. Nevertheless, when I saw that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was on the table, I was a bit nervous it would lessen my esteem for Mitchell. I’m sure this is due to the many glowing reviews it had received already, heightening my expectations to the point where I felt there was no way Mitchell could meet them. Well, if you’ve yet to read this book, this review might deflate some of your expectations, which I hope will be a service. For me, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a step backwards.
A step backwards from those earlier works doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. For one thing, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet took me to a place that I didn’t know existed, a small man-made island named Dejima, which sat in Nagasaki harbor during Japan’s period of Sakoku. I didn’t know what Sakoku was either. From 1633 – 1853, Sakoku was the Japanese foreign relations policy: no foreigner could enter Japan and no Japanese could leave. Violators were put to death. For two hundred years the little island of Dejima was a peephole into and out of Japan because it was only there that foreigners could come and trade goods.
For much of the time, the Dutch were the primary (if not the only) ones allowed to trade at Dejima, as is the case in July 1799, when this book begins. Jacob de Zoet has just arrived on Dejima. He is a young Dutch clerk working for the Dutch East India Company. A clerk of impeccable morals, he arrives with a new chief, Mr. Vorstenbosch, to clean Dejima of the corruption it had been suffering for years. The last chief deputy had been engaging in illicit trades and privateering. You already know that Jacob was not well received.
“To man its ships, maintain its garrisons, and pay its tens of thousands of salaries, Mr. Oost, including yours, the company must make a profit. Its trading factories must keep books. Dejima’s books for the last five years are a pig’s dinner. It is Mr. Vorstenbosch’s duty to order me to piece those books together. It is my duty to obey. Why must this make my name Iscariot?”
Even the fairly honorable among the workers stretch around the rules, which is somewhat understandable if you consider that they are stuck on a small island all year round; they’re not far off when they call it a prison. They really don’t want someone coming in to stop the only things that make working on Dejima bearable. Here’s an exchange where de Zoet expresses genuine shock that the illegal activities can go on under the noses of those in charge.
“The guards and friskers at the land gate don’t find this odd?”
“They’re paid not to find it odd. Now, here’s my question for you: how’s the chief goin’ to act on this? On this an’ everythin’ else you’re snufflin’ up? ‘Cause this is how Dejima works. Stop all these little perquisites, eh, an’ yer stop Dejima itself — an’ don’t evade me, eh, with your ‘That is a matter for Mr. Vorstenbosch.'”
To me, the first section was very good. In a way, the subtle development of subjugatoin and betrayal reminded me of the much better — because it is much subtler — first and last sections in Cloud Atlas. Getting to know de Zoet and watching him navigate the traps in his way is a real pleasure. De Zoet is the pragmatic and fiercely loyal type we’d expect to see wandering around yelling about “duty!” Back home he has left a fiancé whose father doesn’t approve of the match, so de Zoet is anxious to honorably claw his way to the top. We get the sense that he holds a lot of promise because of his loyalty to duty, but that that loyalty might just be his biggest obstacle. His motivation gets a bit muddied when he begins to fall in love with a Japanese midwife named Orito Aibagawa. The best advice he can get, though, is “If you do love her, express your devotion by avoiding her.”
The story, divided, essentially, into three parts, is very good. The first part focuses on de Zoet’s trials in his first months as Dejima’s despised sanitizer. The second follows Aibagawa to a monastery in the interior. The third features a menacing British frigate, come to use diplomacy or force to benefit from the Dejima trading post. It’s exciting and I didn’t want to put it down though there were two issues that bothered me from the beginning and that ultimately led me to the conclusion that an interesting story in a fascinating setting is most of what this book has to offer: (1) it became clear fairly early on that Mitchell was going to explain everything fairly nicely, taking me out of the narrative process, and (2) that the characters, once setup in clever passages, were going to be predictably good or bad.
Regarding my first issue, this is Mitchell’s first third-person narrative. In an interview with John Self he said in the past he had found this “infinite” perspective a challenge because he never knew what to leave out. As clever most pieces were, I wish he’d left more out. The character’s thoughts were often shown in tell-all itallics (which leads to my next issue with the book). I kept trying to look for more complexity underneath what was being said and thought and then explained, but I always felt that it was all there on the surface. The plot brings out many of Mitchell’s main themes — the will to power, subjugation and exploitation, mortality and the fight to achieve immortality — but I felt these themes were there to make the plot interesting and not that the plot was there to explore these themes.
As for my second issue with character development, for the most part once Mitchell lays the first stone of character development, we know how the overall structure of that character is going to look. I found that lack of complexity frustrating. Though I felt the characters were likeably good or likeably bad, they never veered from that course, no matter what the plot threw at them. This made them, if not the plot, frustratingly predictable. The plot revealed what happened to the characters but that didn’t give them new contours for the reader to consider.
One of my favorite chapters in the entire novel — the only one in which I marked many passages — was the one small chapter done in the first person. I think Mitchell’s work is much more interesting when he takes that omniscience out of the formula and allows the intimacies of one human mind to suggest what’s going on, limited though that one mind might be in the grander scheme. This passage is told by one of deputy Fischer’s slaves (Fischer being one of the bad characters). The slave has just been deducing what he owns and what he doesn’t own, being a slave, finally determining that he himself owns his thoughts:
Master Fischer owns my body, then, but he does not own my mind. This I know, because of a test. When I shave Master Fischer, I imagine slitting open his throat. If he owned my mind, he would see this evil thought. But instead of punishing me, he just sits there with his eyes shut.
Once this chapter is over, the book resumes the third person and that intimacy leaves. So I enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I don’t feel the desire to read it again, and I feel it would have been better if I hadn’t read quite a portion of it the first time through.