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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

November 4, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

This is one of the finest historical novels I’ve ever read. It is set in Nagasaki Harbour in 1799, in closed Shogunate Japan, where the Dutch East Indies Company has a toehold, a tiny harbour island of Dejima crammed with warehouses. It is the Japanese empire’s single port, the only entry point for foreigners with a handful of Dutch traders stranded with dreams of getting rich. Jacob Zoet, a young Dutchman has managed to smuggle his family Psalter and dreams that making a private fortune will enable him to marry back in Holland.

David Mitchell’s style is pretty near magical especially in evoking enchanted countryside and dense townships of Edo-period Japan:

“Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bathhouse adulterers; heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books…”

Among the Dutch is a Doctor Marinus whose bookshelves include Francis Bacon, Goethe, Voltaire, Newton, Juvenal and Dante – one of Mitchell’s most interesting characters:

“I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?”

“Oh, Descartes’s methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark…So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove…”

The novel is long and dense and at times I wondered whether the mystery at the heart of it was big enough to justify the structure. But if the test of writing, especially of historical fiction is to create an alternative universe then Mitchell succeeds and deserves the high praise he has won.

One of the few works of contemporary fiction I can recommend.

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