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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

May 15, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, is not a novel I would have noticed or picked up on my own, but it’s up for discussion at the Imaginary Friends Book Club today, and if there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s the chance to read a novel someone I like suggests. If any of you readers tell me you like a specific title and want to discuss it with me, I will do my best to read it, even if it’s not my usual kind of thing. I read The Golden Spruce that way and I’m halfway through Iain Banks’ Matter, which was sent to me in the mail as a present more months back than I would like to count.

I learned on page 366 of Mitchell’s novel that the “thousand autumns” of the title is one of the many names for Japan. The story begins in 1799 with Jacob sailing into Nagasaki harbor with the Dutch East Indies Company and ends in 1817 with him sailing back to his native land. In between, seasons change, people come and go, and Jacob watches it all, learning enough of the Japanese language and customs to have an increasing but always slightly peripheral stake in what happens as the samurai culture disappears and the British East India Company appears to take over the formerly Dutch trade routes.

There are a couple of horrific slavery stories, an impatient and ascerbic doctor whose seeming lack of manners obscures the fact that his heart is with the oppressed population, and an impossible east/west romance complicated by its position within bigger webs of love and longing.

The doctor, Marinus, tells some of the Dutch traders the story of one of their slaves, Sjako, summing it up by saying “Sjako was brought here in his seventeenth year: he shan’t be leaving until his twenty-ninth. His son shall be sold long before then, and his wife mated to another.” When the traders object that they haven’t seen their wives and children for years either, Marinus gets to point out “you are….here to make yourself rich. Sjako is a slave, here to make his masters comfortable.”

One of the main characters is a Japanese interpreter named Uzaemon, and the decisions he and his team make about how to translate from Dutch into Japanese are invariably entertaining, like this one:
“surely the Dutch word ‘semen’ cannot be related to this unknown verb ‘disseminate’? Goto Shinpachi anticipates his colleague’s difficulty and suggests ‘distribute.’ Uzaemon guesses ‘germinate’ means ‘is accepted’ but is warned by suspicious glances from the Shirando’s audience: If we don’t understand the speaker, we blame the interpreter.

The most exciting story of all–the story of a woman who is sold into sexual slavery at a nunnery where the newborn babies resulting from formalized unions between the male acolytes and the female nuns are immediately sacrificed and the “nuns” are allowed to live throughout their childbearing years and then killed—is buried in layers of clues and told very slowly as Jacob and Uzaemon slowly piece it together. At the peak of excitement, when we think the woman’s lover is going to rescue her from her awful fate, the lover is caught and executed by the Abbot, who tells him “your childlike failure to rescue Aibagawa Orito sentences her not only to twenty years of servitude—your ineptitude has, literally, killed her.” Except that, in the slow and patient way of this story, it does not. As in life, the exciting parts are buried in the tedium of everyday events, mistaken trust in the wrong people, and the unwillingness to take a chance.

Having been thinking about Iago in light of deciding that I don’t want to know what he could say after his line “from this time forth I never will speak word,” and so I don’t want to read Nicole Galland’s new novel from his point of view (entitled I, Iago), I thought that was why–when one man on the rescue mission says to another man the line that I always imagine Othello saying when my students ask why he trusted Iago, which is “to have relied on a man to stay alive is a bond closer than blood”—I got such an uneasy feeling. But with hindsight, which is the only way to make sense of such deeply intertwined stories, I decided it was deliberate on the part of the novelist.

The climax–which is simply a red-haired man standing his ground on shore while events contribute to another man’s decision whether to shoot him—makes complete sense only to someone who is privy to all the thoughts and feelings which have been conveyed over the course of the novel. It’s an oddly quiet story, with the exciting parts dampened by the meeting of expectation and consequences. It’s a very old story, and the novelist has made it new by showing how one person’s refusal to participate in the usual course of events can sometimes manage to influence those events, just a little, for a while.

And that is a hopeful thought, isn’t it? That if you or I stand up and refuse to participate in something we believe will lead in a wrong direction, we could play a part in stopping it, just by continuing to stand there long enough, by contriving to stay in the right place until it’s the right time.

The cynic in me thinks of the Despair.com poster of the ship sinking, with the caption “it could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”  But the most hopeful thing about Mitchell’s novel is that every day there is another chance and the main character gets thousands of days to practice holding onto his idealism in a world of increasing cynicism.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2012 9:06 am

    I think this might be too layered and too slow for me.

    • May 16, 2012 8:06 am

      I didn’t understand how the stories were coming together until about 200 pages in. I don’t think the story is slow; it was my comprehension that was slow, and that’s because it’s hard for any one person to comprehend the vastness of this canvas.

  2. trapunto permalink
    May 15, 2012 12:53 pm

    David Mitchell is one of those writers who sounds soooo much more boring than he turns out to be (and layered and slow). Well, he is layered and slow, but it doesn’t feel layered and slow when he’s doing it . . . you can see why it’s really frustrating to try to describe him to people. You’ve done an amazing job of reducing this novel to it’s salient features, Jeanne!

    I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I loved Mitchell’s earlier books even more. Most of all, l love that he is the kind of writer whose ideas and style both remain in a state of perpetual development. It’s so exciting to remember that he is out there writing books this good AND still a young guy, so there will be all kinds of surprises coming my way for years to come. Like money in the bank.

    • May 16, 2012 8:09 am

      I’m so pleased you think I was able to hit the salient features of this vast novel! And yes, it’s exciting to think that he’s still got a lot of writing to come. (The happy news for me is that I can read his earlier books now–this was my first one.)

  3. May 15, 2012 6:56 pm

    I’m glad you liked it. I picked this book because I liked Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas so much and because I’m selfish and want to be reading books I haven’t read before alone with everybody else. That said, i haven’t actually read it yet (I blame you for distracting me with Nick Harkaway). But you’ve reminded me of why I want to. Hope to get caught up this weekend.

    • May 15, 2012 8:23 pm

      Nick Harkaway is a worthy distraction though :D

    • May 16, 2012 8:10 am

      It strikes me that Mitchell and Harkaway both manipulate a large number of characters on a vast canvas, but Harkaway does some of it for ironic and even comic effect, while Mitchell is more earnest.

  4. May 15, 2012 7:13 pm

    Hm. David Mitchell I had slightly written off for reasons not entirely clear to me but here are you and Trapunto at the same time singing his praises. A very compelling argument in his favor…

    • May 16, 2012 8:13 am

      Yes. Because as you well know, while our tastes are different, the books we’ve agreed on in the past are absolutely fabulous.

  5. May 16, 2012 11:53 am

    Funn you said the novel wasn’t slow, your comprehension was. That’s how I felt about Cloud Atlas. It was pretty amazing when it finally clicked for me and came together.

    • May 16, 2012 12:19 pm

      Because I more often seek out the quick and witty, a novel that forces me to suspend judgement and let a lot of ideas come together over time is a rare pleasure.

  6. May 24, 2012 8:31 pm

    I keep seeing this book mentioned in places but I feel intimidated by this author for some reason. But perhaps I shall brave it.

    • May 25, 2012 7:13 am

      One of the worst things about book bloggers is that as a group, they sometimes exaggerate the difficulty of reading something that isn’t immediately easy. Some of my favorite books took me a while to get interested in.

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