The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet has gotten a lot of praise, but it was the fact that I could read a sample chapter on my Kindle that made me buy it. Whatever else David Mitchell’s qualities as a writer may be, he creates lively, readable prose that sucked me right into his story. And while I wondered at first whether I wasn’t just reading a premium version of Shogun, I realized the difference pretty quickly: I never finished Shogun. But The Thousand Autumns…, though a hefty 500 pages, zipped past.
The place is the island of Dejima, a man-made island next to Nagasaki. It is 1799 and the Dutch operate a limited trading post on Dejima, the only European trading facility with cloistered Japan. We are introduced first to Aibagawa Orito, a midwife, then to the young Dutchman Jacob De Zoet, as he arrives in Dejima on shipboard. One of the undeniable attractions of historical fiction is exposure to worlds we would not attain on our own, and this is where the resemblance to James Clavell resides. But ethnography and plotting are incidental in this case to Mitchell’s larger points which cluster around issues of perception and understanding between cultures. Much is made of the translation process and one of the most appealing characters in the book is an interpreter. As De Zoet matures he begins to grasp both the difficulties and the opportunities that occur so richly in the floating border town of Dejima.
All of which sounds quite dry, but Mitchell’s gift is to bring his characters to life. And while the book begins in a fairly straightforward style, the narrative mechanics expand in the second half. Time and again, the novel’s action is held up as a character tells a story which might be a myth, a lie, a memory, a fable. Normally this drives me crazy but I was putty in Mitchell’s hands. The midwife Orito, about halfway through the book, ruminates about the human need for stories: “It is stories, she believes, that make life in the House of Sisters tolerable… Orito pictures the human mind as a loom that weaves disparate threads of belief, memory, and narrative into an entity whose common name is Self, and which sometimes calls itself Perception.”
Finally, the writing is vivid enough to provide arresting imagery throughout. “Shuzai knees at the water’s edge and drinks water from his cupped hands. A feathery fish hovers in the current; a bright berry floats by.” It’s a spare composition like a Japanese print – on the page. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet isn’t spare. It’s rich in poetry and character, but reading it is like a remarkably satisfying dream.