It definitely has a clunky title and based on the title alone I’m not sure I would have ever picked up David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet if not for my thorough enjoyment of the author’s earlier work, Cloud Atlas. In that first exposure to Mitchell I had discovered his visionary capability and aptitude for multiple narrative voices within Cloud Atlas’s unique arrangement of letters, pulp fiction, and science fiction spanning centuries into the past and future possibilities. Compared to Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet appears much narrower in vision, subsisting as a piece of imagined historical fiction focused on a specific and unique time and place: the Dutch East India company’s singular port of trade with the Shogun era Japan.
Despite the clunky title, this novel is a well-researched work of fiction that explores the difficulties faced by the Dutch trading with an isolationist Japan. Now, when I say well-researched, I don’t intend to say that The Thousand Autumns is an accurate portrayal of true events (there is plenty of fiction within these pages), but Mitchell does an excellent job portraying both the Dutch and Japanese perspectives through believable characterizations and a picturesque development of the setting of early 19th century Nagasaki. The novel is told entirely in the present tense and Mitchell employs a consistent practice of inserting background sounds and images such as “lethargic waves die on the other side of the seawall,” (61) and “out in the street, dogs run past, barking murderously,” (277) to develop a vivid sense of place that is the background to the novel’s setting. These two random examples that I selected by simply flipping through the pages are examples of many such images that Mitchell inserts into the text as brief interludes that don’t have a direct relationship with the action of the plot, but serve as development of the believability and reality of the novel’s world. The novel is divided into three major sections if you ignore the very brief parts four and five (which are really just epilogues) with a narrative voice that switches between the Dutch and Japanese perspectives and later a British trade-ship’s perspective after it is introduced.
The novel’s first section starts with a bang with vivid imagery of the labor and birth of a supposed stillborn aided by the skilled efforts of the midwife Orito Abigawa who has studied the Dutch techniques of medicine. These first few pages pack a punch with escalating consequences of a complicated labor however the remaining 165 pages of part one stifle the vibrant accomplishment of the first 9 pages by shifting the focus towards the arrival of a Dutch trade ship and the title character, Jacob De Zoet, an honest clerk living the gamble of his time, attempting to make it rich in the far east with the goal of returning home after serving five years with the Dutch East India Company. Japan is hostile towards outsiders and the Dutch port is located on Dejima, a walled off island connected to Nagaskai only by a bridge. The pace of the novel throughout this section is intentionally slow to develop the feeling of isolation that De Zoet and his fellow Dutchmen experience in their port/prison that is part of, yet separate from the Nagasaki world that surrounds them. De Zoet is introduced to the midwife Orito and develops a conflicted love interest in her despite having only shared a few brief conversations. The potential love story is only a diversion to develop De Zoet as a conflicted, yet honest man whose primary goal is to correct the books of the trading company. Jacob’s honesty gets him in trouble as he is a victim of espionage and ultimately loses his promotion due to his superior’s skills in political puppetry.
As I was reading the first part of the novel I couldn’t help but ask why? What was the point of this book? There is definitely a lot of lovely imagery but the suffocating focus on the Dejima island trading post was snail paced and lacked an engaging story. With a love interest that was half-hearted at best it didn’t seem like Mitchell had a clear goal with this book.
My frustration was shortsighted though, because the second part of the novel cracked opened the suffocating tone of the first part as the narration began to shift back and forth from the Japanese and the Dutch perspective, revealing how the two worlds were intertwined. The first part was really just a drawn out and necessary character development for the Dutch perspective to better enlighten the conflict faced by the Japanese who were limited by their Shogun’s mandate to restrict their reliance upon colonial influences despite the learned Japanese understanding that the world around them was changing and powers greater than Dutch trading would ultimately threaten their goal of perpetual isolation. The activities of Jacob De Zoet become a minor footnote in the second part of the novel as the focus changes from character to character. The possibility of a relationship between Jacob and Orito is thrown away as Orito is sold into a nunnery after her debt-ridden father dies. The nunnery is revealed to be part of a bizarre cult and the exposure of this cult through a scroll handed on to Jacob De Zoet is the only thin thread that connects these once potential lovers. The inclusion of the cult is a little awkward and it does seem like Mitchell developed it to provide a subtext to what is ultimately a political historical novel. I could have done without the cult (or even the continued focus on Orito) because it distracted more than engaged, but it did serve as a functional tangent to move the story along.
The third part of the novel is where Mitchell really shines in this book. The pace of the novel really picks up here through the budding conflict that unfolds as a British ship enters the Dutch harbor in Nagasaki, Japan and claims rights to the Dutch port. The narrative voice rapidly switches between the Dutch, British, and Japanese perspectives like a voyeur in an elaborate diplomatic game of cards. The standoff culminates into a game of patience that threatens an all-out war between Japan and Britain and through the action that unfolds Mitchell’s book imagines the seeds that would later germinate and open up a nation that had valued its independence during a period of colonial expansion.
“What prophets of commerce in, let us say, the Year 1700 could have foreseen a time when commoners consume tea by the bucket and sugar by the sack? What subject of William and Mary could have predicted the “need” of today’s middling multitudes for cotton sheets, coffee, and chocolate? Human requisites are prone to fashion; and, as clamoring new needs replace old ones, the face of the world itself changes…” (328)