David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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.

Review copy courtesy of Random House.

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.

28 thoughts on “David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I just bought this book, an hour or two ago LOL. But even if I’d read your thoughtful review beforehand (I love the way you’ve encapsulated Mitchell’s recurring themes) I would still have bought Thousand Autumns.
    After Cloud Atlas, anything Mitchell writes is a bit of a let-down, but I still enjoyed number9dream and Black Swan Green – and have actually been ‘saving up’ Ghostwritten on the TBR because I couldn’t bear not to have something of his to look forward to. Now I have two!

  2. I also thought this was a step backwards for him. It is my least favourite of all his books and though I still enjoyed Thousand Autumns I thought it tried to cram in too much at the expense of an engaging plot. So much of it was confusing at first and so I had trouble forming an emotional attachment to the characters. I’m sure it will still win the Booker prize this year, but I wish he’d won it with Cloud Atlas.

  3. Trevor says:

    You shouldn’t worry, Lisa. It’s still a nice read :).

    I’m not sure he will win the Booker this year, Jackie. The book has to pass muster on three readings to do that, and while I’m sure it will pass muster once and maybe twice, I hope there’s something that offers more on the third read.

    By the way, in this week’s New Yorker, James Wood agrees with this assessment; of course, he says it much better.

  4. Colette Jones says:

    I agree completely but I think I was perhaps more annoyed with this book than you were, Trevor.

    Here’s what I said on the Man Booker forum:

    “I thought it was quite predictable with no surprises. People described as good were good; people described as bad were bad. Everyone’s exact thoughts were laid out explicitly. Therefore, nothing left to the reader’s imagination.”

  5. Colette Jones says:

    The UK cover is very nice though. Can’t say I like your US cover very much.

  6. Trevor says:

    You probably were a bit more annoyed at it than I was, Colette. I wanted to like it much more, but I had some fun with it, as disappointed as I ended up being. It was fairly early on that I figured it was going to be mostly story, so I tried to just accept that and enjoy it for what it was. Still, quite sad.

    As for the covers, I’ve only seen scans of the UK cover, though I heard (was it you?) that the textures and glimmer are very nice. I’d like to see one up close. As for the US cover, I think holding it might be beneficial too. It has the feel of a watercolor, almost. It feels a bit crisp and even warped by wetness, particularly at that black top. Perhaps that was just my copy, but because of that I quite like it.

  7. This one is my next read (after I finish Memory of Love, which is turning out to be quite good) so I very much appreciate having my expectations lowered. I too like Mitchell’s work a lot and admit that the descriptions of Thousand Autumns had already raised concerns — which this review and Colette’s assessment tend to confirm. Having said that, I appreciate that you did find the book worthwhile despite its shortcomings — with reduced expectations, that should get me through.

    Colette: The physical North American cover is better than the image, but a still a bit junky for my taste. More important, however, the NA version has deckled edges — eat your heart out. One can always remove the dust jacket, but you can’t deckle the pages yourself. :-)

  8. Colette Jones says:

    Ah, deckled edges! I do like them.

    Yes, Trevor, it was me who mentioned the UK cover, I think on John Self’s blog.

    I am a Mitchell fan, having discounted only number9dream up to this piont. If “Thousand Autumns” was written by someone else I almost definitely would have given up on it early on.

    So he’s 3 out of 5 now with me.

  9. Kevin says:

    Step backwards, indeed. I’m astonished by Woods’ review. I feel as if he gave Mitchell a hall pass. Of course, there are brilliant moments in Thousands, but just as often, there are painful howlers: “skin sizzled like bacon,” just off the top of my head. When reading Mitchell, I often feel that he’s his best authorial self when he’s writing beyond his ability, as he does in Cloud Atlas. That’s my problem with Thousands so far, a 1/4 of the way through — it’s well within his ability. I want him to disclose something new about the metaphysics of power or the ethics of compassion, etc. Who knows, maybe I’ll undergo a conversion experience in the next 1/4 of the book. So far I’m sadly disappointed. Thanks for your thoughts, Trevor. Cheers, Kevin

  10. Trevor says:

    Michiko Kakutani’s review of Jacob de Zoet is surprising in its lack of substance. It’s mostly just a plot rehash (which I think gives away a bit too much). It’s boring to read and insightless, where I usually enjoy her reviews even if I disagree (as I do here). I’m not saying my reviews are better, surely, but this is pretty poor for The New York Times daily and from a Pulitzer-winning critic. All of this could be because I really liked the James Wood review (linked above) and the fact that Kakutani just isn’t given nearly as much room.

  11. Trevor says:

    Kevin, you know from my review that I have little encouragement to offer. I did like the story, and I think Mitchell’s stylistic choices, whether good or bad, are often interesting :). For the most part. The bacon thing is a strange choice for a man who seems to get around cliches so well you’d almost swear he’s actually using a cliche.

  12. A nice corrective Trevor. I find this a fascinating period (I did know about it, not sure how on reflection) and I am looking forward to this hitting paperback in a year or so.

    That said, my strong impression is it’s one to read when I feel like a story-driven novel. If I want an entertaining tale about an interesting time and place this fits that bill, if I want something deeper then an earlier work or another author might be more to the point.

    Is that fair?

  13. Trevor says:

    I think that’s fair, Max. And many people have loved it. For example, here is the review in The Washington Post. However, when it says this:

    Yes, the novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale.

    I think I got more “conventional and familiar tale.” If you go into it with that in mind, I think it would be enjoyable, but there really is nothing else to it. I mean, the review says the theme is “the triumph of decorum and honor in a world of corruption and perversion,” but I think that comfortable theme has been given quite a ride in Horatio Hornblower and all who claim to do their duty (by the way, de Zoet reminded me a lot of Hornblower — not a bad thing, I like them both fine).

    This is a good review, though. Much more insightful than Kakutani’s. It has this nice line: “Of course, truth is a soft metal when fortunes can be made by melting it down.” I also like its conclusion, which brings out a possitive point about language that I failed to mention:

    Some of the tensest scenes describe diplomatic meetings where the fate of nations rests on the best guesses of linguists reaching over the horizon into the darkness of foreign idioms. Lives hinge on the conjugation of courtesy, the semantics of bluffing, the rendering of metaphor. Forget the deadly Ninja; it’s the translator you’ve got to watch in this smart saga that never cracks a smile no matter how much fun it’s having.

  14. Shelley says:

    Your post actually made me more curious not about this book but about the one with the stuttering boy. I can never hear a stutter without feeling that it is one of the best metaphors for how we all struggle to say what we need to say.

  15. Trevor says:

    Black Swan Green is a wonderful book, Shelley. I wish more people would take it seriously rather than discount it as an apprentice piece Mitchell did to get away from formal flare. I’m glad that stood out to you in this review :).

  16. Thanks Trevor. I think this is one for me, but one for when I simply want to lose myself in a book for a while. I’ll pick it up next year and read it on a long plane ride sometime.

    None of which is knocking it. I have huge respect for that old fashioned thing, a good story well told. It’s not my general reading taste (generally I could care less about plot, I’m more about character and language these days), but it’s a lot harder to pull off than I think it sometimes gets credit and there’s definitely times that’s welcome.

  17. Great to read a corrective, Trevor, and I hope it lowers Kevin’s expectations enough for him to enjoy it as much as I did. I think the reason that I enjoyed it so much was because of its simplicity. I had only previously read Ghostwritten, which I really wasn’t as impressed by as everyone else seemed to be. SInce then I have avoided him, suspicious of the tricksy, fractured narratives but having been able to appreciate his storytelling in this book I may well go back to Cloud Atlas (even though that literally is a backward step). Nice to read some more criticism in the comments too, it was such an uncomplicated pleasure that I don’t mind people picking it apart at all!

  18. Trevor says:

    Proof that you should read everything I write with a pinch of salt or two, here is Dave Egger’s review of Jacob de Zoet in the Sunday New York Times Book Review (click here). We have very different opinions on the book. Where I find the book conventional, predictable and rather shallow, Eggers says,

    If the book sounds dense, that’s because it is. It’s a novel of ideas, of longing, of good and evil and those who fall somewhere in between. . . . In fact, it’s not an easy book, period. Its pacing can be challenging, and its idiosyncrasies are many. But it offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless­writers alive.

    Innumerable rewards for the patient reader? I still think it’s all on the page. The patient reader will get more out of the language, but I still don’t see that there’s more to the story that we haven’t seen thousands of times before. Of course, I very well could have been one of those impatient readers.

    I keep linking to reviews because I’m really fascinated by them in this particular case. A book that gets called both shallow and deep by reputable writers (though I’m no fan of Eggers) is worth watching.

  19. Trevor says:

    I just have to ask if this is funny to anyone else. In Egger’s review, this is the example he uses to say lead into the “this is not an easy book period.”

    And are there even nods to the story of Persephone, also born of privilege, also found plucking exotic fruit, also abducted — whose removal from the world causes the world’s seasons? Maybe, maybe not. There are no easy answers or facile connections in “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” In fact, it’s not an easy book, period.

    Is not knowing whether a book is alluding to another text what passes for rewarding difficulty?

  20. Colette Jones says:

    Yes, that’s funny, and I disagree with Eggers.

    It was an easy book, period. Everything could be followed very easily, as it was all explicitly laid out, no thinking around it required.

  21. Lee Monks says:

    “I keep linking to reviews because I’m really fascinated by them in this particular case. A book that gets called both shallow and deep by reputable writers (though I’m no fan of Eggers) is worth watching.”

    I refer you to the case of Bret Easton Ellis and Imperial Bedrooms, which I must admit to really enjoying, possibly for the same reasons that some hated it.

  22. Trevor says:

    I’ve been watching that a bit too, Lee, though since I haven’t read it I haven’t been as interested. I’m not that interested in Bret Easton Ellis anyway, for some reason. At this point, I don’t think I’ll ever pick him up. Am I way off?

  23. Lee Monks says:

    I’m not sure what to say. I have a hunch you might not really enjoy him; having said that, I do think he’s one of the three or four most under-rated writers around. I found Imperial Bedrooms to be exquisite and pitch-black hilarious. I just love the dialogue exchanges and the pristine, sardonic wit of it. It’s an acquired taste, I guess. Give it a go! Blame me by all means if you loathe it!

    Though I must say I owe you a great recommendation after your mentioning of Alistair McCleod. I’ve only read ‘The Boat’ thus far but you’re absolutely right there – what a writer.

  24. Trevor says:

    See the link in the above pingback for another disappionted admirer’s look at Jacob de Zoet. Kevin from Interpolations even coins a new term of art for one of Mitchell’s literary techniques: the prolapsed arm. Perfect!

  25. Ken says:

    This is comically late. But…I was disappointed too. I loved Cloud Atlas about as much as one can love a book and found Black Swan Green very moving. This struck me as a superior version of Shogun with better writing and some great moments. I enjoyed it but expected more. The key confinement and deception of the sisters is exactly like plot elements in the Orison of Sonmi section of Cloud ATlas

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