In writing his fifth novel, David Mitchell had an unenviable task. After the cumulative nimbleness of Cloud Atlas, he retreated into a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story for Black Swan Green (“I thought it was about time I wrote my first novel”), but all eyes – my eyes anyway – were on what he would do next. In particular, could he break the pattern that had made each of his first three novels, despite their inventiveness and compexity, seem to be less an ocean than a multitude of drops? Could he apply his considerable imaginative talent to a fully unified story? Or would he be damned either way: accused either of failing to break new ground, or of not playing to his established strengths?
Until I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I didn’t know that Japan shared a common border with the Netherlands. Well, it did in the 18th century. It was called Dejima, a small artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, an airlock between east and west, a “walled-in hamlet of warehouses”. It provided Japan with a connection to Europe after the country closed off relations with the rest of the world, and was occupied by Dutch merchants taking delivery of shipments from their port of Batavia (now Jakarta), in Indonesia. The privilege of being the only westerners to trade with Japan was not an unqualified one: ‘”the Shogun’s hostages” is what the natives dub us,’ observes one trader. When one young clerk complains that he cannot cross the Land-Gate from Dejima to Nagasaki, he gets short shrift from his interpreter, Ogawa:
‘But [you] may pass through Sea-Gate and away, over ocean. But I – all Japanese – prisoners all life. Who plot to leave is executed. Who leave and return from abroad is executed.’
The clerk is Jacob de Zoet, employed by Dutch Chief Vorstenbosch to investigate the endemic corruption on the island. “Dejima’s books for the last five years are a pig’s dinner.” Jacob is a young man of ability and integrity, both factors in his subsequent fortunes. He is warned by the colourful Arie Grote, however: “Stop all these little perquisites, eh, an’ yer stop Dejima itself,” and also, significantly, that “loyalty looks simple, but it ain’t.” Jacob feels trapped on Dejima but also trapped by the past he left behind – and the future he awaits – back in Zeeland: he is engaged to a girl called Anna, while here on Dejima, his attention is increasingly drawn to midwife and student Miss Aibagawa. Mitchell sketches the strangeness of the foreign country-within-a-country in quick strokes:
There is a row of stone idols; twists of paper tied to a plum tree.
Nearby, street acrobats perform a snonky song to drum up business.
The palanquins pass over an embanked river; the water stinks.
Jacob’s armpits, groin and knees are itchy with sweat; he fans himself with his clerk’s portfolio.
There is a girl in an upper window; there are red lanterns hanging from the eaves, and she is idly tickling the hollow of her throat with a goose feather. Her body cannot be ten years old, but her eyes belong to a much older woman’s.
Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.
A hairy beggar kneeling over a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog.
Jacob proves his ability in brokering a successful deal for the sale of mercury to Lord Abbot Enomoto, but Japan is not a meritocracy (nor anything close: “democracy is not a flower who bloom in Japan, I think”), and Jacob, Miss Aibagawa, and Enomoto will become locked in alignment in a horrifying way as the story progresses. Enomoto symbolises power, and power is at the heart of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In a story where most – individuals, companies, countries – are interested in their own advancement, it is the powerful who have most to fear. The Dutch have the power of being the only country trading with Japan, but they would be foolish to forget, for example, that “the English are a vicious race.”
The members of the strongest companies and countries also tend to forget, as one high-ranking character observes, that “power is a man’s means of composing the future, but the composition has a way of composing itself.” We are reminded of the futility of men’s plans in the face of greater events, and also – in the powerfully affecting closing pages of the book – of how little a man’s own key life events matter to others or to posterity.
As the world turns – as Enlightenment follows “ignoration”, as imperfect democracy flowers across the globe (“In the animal kingdom,” says one Dutch merchant, “the vanquished are eaten by those more favoured by Nature. Slavery is merciful by comparison: the lesser races keep their lives in exchange for their labour”), Japan retains its closed mystery. “The Third Shogun closed the country to prevent Christian rebellion,” comments one historian, “but its result was to pickle Japan in a specimen jar!” Even Jacob, late in the book, must admit, “Obscurity is Japan’s outermost defence. The country doesn’t want to be understood.”
And while this is the rich unified narrative I was hoping for, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is told in three distinct parts. The second part is almost a thriller, and brings to mind not only an echo of the subjugation theme of Cloud Atlas, but also of various cultural reference points: Black Narcissus, The Handmaid’s Tale, even Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The third part muddies the waters beautifully. Throughout the book, Mitchell frequently uses short paragraphs and paired ellipses which imitates narrative pace despite the stately progress of the story. Each scene is a small perfection of detail and narrative payoff, and what is remarkable is how Mitchell achieves the sense of immersion while keeping his details spare and unobtrusive.
The book shifts under the reader’s eyes, sometimes about this, sometimes that, and only at the end do we recall the overview. It is a book about the great shifts in power between countries and ideologies, and the weight of money, but it is also an intricate human drama and an emotional voyage. “Why must all things,” a ship’s captain wonders, “go around in stupid circles?” Because nations and politics may change, but people never do.