In an era when novel-writing is falling prey to the demands of a quick-consumerist culture; one that demands two or three or four new books a year from its favourite romance or thriller darlings, the reader cannot help but take a breath of relief when she comes across a writer like David Mitchell. What makes the writer remarkable is his uncompromising duty to his art—his adeptness and boldness in reinventing and experimenting with his prose: with Cloud Atlas he seamlessly blended genres and narrative gimmicks (letters, diaries, interviews, etc.); in Black Swan Greene, he tackled his “white, straight, middle-class” British hometown in an engaging semi-autobiography.
In 2010, Mitchell released his latest and perhaps most daunting project to date. One has a sense in reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, that this book has been a long time on the writer’s mind, as indeed Mitchell confirms, giving its origins as a “wrong tram stop” during the time in which the writer was living in Nagasaki, in 1994. Mitchell’s fascination with oriental culture has managed its way into each of his works yet de Zoet marks the writer’s first, full exposure of his knowledge.
To begin, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a historical novel, the writer’s first, and an ambitious first at that. In the early 17th century, the Dutch empire opened trading connections with the Japanese, making it one of, if not the first, empires to open Asia to the west. Of course, the Dutch were not the only empire interested in the lucrative Asian trading market, and the British Empire began a bitter and long-lasting rivalry.
Mitchell’s story begins approximately two hundred years (1799) after these initial connections have been made. Jacob de Zoet, a dutiful Dutch clerk who bears a forbidden psalter (the practice of Christianity was punishable by crucifixion in Japan) arrives in Nagasaki Harbor after a ten-month voyage. He is accompanied by two notable figures of power: the formidable “not-even Chief elect” Unico Vorstenbosch and the “Mephistophelean” deputy, Melchior van Cleef, both of whom have arrived to procure an export of copper from the Dutch station of Dejima.
While the trade is frustrated by a hodgepodge of bureaucratic setbacks, translation deficiencies, and a larceny case (Vorstenbosch, after losing a prized teapot to two thieves who later confess to the crime, bestows a sadistic vengeance), de Zoet finds himself in love with the beguiling Orito Aibagawa, a disfigured midwife who is studying Dutch medicine. There follows an exotic and forbidden, and ultimately tragic, love story.
So are the initial plot points for the sprawling tale. They take up about a quarter of the novel and are immensely confusing for a first-time read: sorting through the cluttered Japanese and Dutch names and doubling back to find out who is who’s translator or servant can be an exhausting occupation.
Things pick up dramatically with the conclusion of book one. Because of his decision in an incident involving two equally poor choices, de Zoet is left behind by his Dutch comrades; under this backdrop things begin to develop uneasily. His casual flirting with Aibagawa begins to assume the guise of a Shakespearean tragedy; the warring British Empire become suddenly interested in opening trade with the East; and de Zoet’s Japanese translator stumbles into a disturbing conspiracy, which resembles vaguely that in Vladimir Bartol’s brilliant allegorical novel, Alamut.
With tedious research and an ingenious grasp of 18th century period dialogue (the writer, in an afterword, termed the creation “Bygonese”), Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an immensely entertaining novel. His choice of historical fiction and his linear plotting, though unlike any other methods he has tried before, show his fearlessness and adeptness in experimenting with the novel form.
There are, of course, times when Mitchell’s style can be overwhelming: his dialogue is interrupted frequently by character asides: “My wife and I—more details, Uzaemon thinks with regret—“are not yet blessed,” (296). While this slows down the immediacy of the dialogue and in effect, causes the reader to slow his reading and pay scrupulous attention to these details, after so many pages the affect can be exhausting. Lev Grossman, in his excellent review of the book for Time, also notes Mitchell’s double-bladed sword of detail and life: a tool that notes the subtlest significances of the smallest character and causes the reader to become immediately invested. This, Grossman says, can also detract from the main plot and cause the reader’s attention to wander. Less is more, occasionally, seems to be the takeaway.
Still, complaining about too much life and character in a novel is hardly a complaint when compared to the opposite. After reading Mitchell’s work, one will always be left with more than she can do with: plot, character, detail, brilliant language, etc. To read Mitchell is to be overwhelmed by an unfettered imagination, the likes of which no other current writer possesses or could even manage.