Wednesday, September 29, 2010
David Mitchell/THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET
In 1799, 25-year-old Jacob de Zoet takes a position as ship clerk on a Dutch East India Company ship headed for Dejima, the man-made island of the coast of Nagasaki on the southern shore of Japan's main island. Japan, which has now been completely closed to foreigners for two centuries to resist the corrupting influences of Westernization and Christianity, only allows the Dutch to trade via this quirky, sinful island of expatriots. Jacob is a righteous and honest man, and a painstaking clerk; he intends to do his job well so that he can return home after seven years to his fiancee in Holland. Of course, his good intentions are upset by corruption among the higher-ups, incendiary conflict over international trade, and a disturbing love obsession with an entirely inaccessible Japanese woman.
Before I go further with this review, I just want to leave my succinct net-net, which is that this book is STUNNING. It took me two weeks to read, since I had to spend so much time absorbing it, and for me every minute was worth it. If you stop reading the review here, at least take that home with you!
I generally try to sum up the plot of a book in a paragraph, but my paragraph above only sums up the first forty pages or so of this book. The story Mitchell tells is rather too grand and complex to capture neatly, and his famously experimental narrative voice doesn't make summing it up any easier. There are so many lush characters--some of them only around for a page or two--that the experience of Dejima is thoroughly multifaceted. One charming, and often sad, aspect of the novel is the collection of crew stories Jacob hears over the course of the novel--the impressed soldier who lost his bride, the half-breed bastard who escaped slavery in Indonesia by taking to the sea, the runaway Irish convict who joined up via a prison colony in Australia, one of the several nameless slaves in the background of the Dutch colonial machine. The minor stories may only last a page or two, but each one zings.
Since I'm a sucker for anything Japanese-themed, I probably would have enjoyed this book even if the writing hadn't been as good as it is (it's very, very good) or the story as vivid and original. But the Japanese portion of the book--the novel falls in discreet sections of Dutch and Japanese stories--struck me as very well done. The adventure at the heart of the novel is very fresh and original, and in the course of reading I found myself looking up real pieces of history I had never encountered before (for example, the Kirishitan, or hidden Christians, who persevered throughout Honshu in secret for two hundred fifty years after their religion was banned--a fascinating story of a long-lived subversive religion).
I'm not doing a very good job of summing up my many thoughts on this book, but I would certainly recommend it to any fans of literary historical fiction. I had some quibbles with it, but nothing about the narrative was so disruptive that it could make me stop reading (I'm honestly not sure anything could have made me stop reading). I finished the book in that rare mood where I was intensely grateful to the author for having conceived of and written it--a feeling I wish I had more often.