David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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.


  1. It sounds like you think it’s an advance for him John, an integration perhaps not wholly there previously. Is that right?

    Interesting time and place to pick for his subject matter.

  2. You know I loved this one John and I’m glad to see you did too. It was definitely gratifying for me personally to have that ‘rich unified narrative’ and I’ve found that the book has become more complex in my mind in the period after reading it – a bit like a wine that satisfies immediately and then has a surprisingly complex aftertaste.

  3. Yes Max I do. I was a great admirer of Cloud Atlas, but the connection between the elements (each reading the other’s story, plus the matching scars) always seemed a bit ropey. Here, it’s definitely one story, though it does come in Mitchellesque sections. As I said above, and as Will implies, it’s only after reading – looking back from the summit – that the overall view becomes clear.

  4. I bought this book twice today, idiot that I am. I have a new job in the town centre and walk by Waterstone’s every day. Today they were putting up a half price display of this book so I bought it. I got home to find a Waterstone’s delivery in the post and realized what I had done. Interestingly, the W shop book was 1st printing and the W internet order was 5th printing!

    (I think I have it on reserve from the library too.)

  5. I was slightly disappointed that my local Waterstone’s didn’t have any hardbacks of Thousand Autumns today, just the horrible large-format paperbacks that we seem to get over here in Northern Ireland (I think they’re strictly speaking for the Republic of Ireland market). Still, as the cover price is £12.99 and Waterstone’s were selling it at half price, that makes it considerably cheaper than the actual paperback will be when it’s released next year.

  6. That trade paperback format, the outsize one, is one I particularly dislike. We started seeing them in the UK with the decline of hardback sales – I suspect in an attempt to maintain some kind of “prestige” product with enhanced pricing.

    However, they have all the drawbacks of a hardback (more expensive, hard to carry about, take up lots of storage space) with none of the advantages (durable, often very attractive). A real worst of both worlds option.

  7. I’m with you Max — those oversized paperbacks (I think they used to be called airport editions) have the worst of both worls. All the size and none of the attractive durability. And, since John was nice enough to again give us both covers, I will admit to liking the North American one better.

  8. Excellent review – both you and Just William have persuaded me to invest in this novel – are you thinking of tackling Yann Martel’s new one???

    And now for something completely different

    I didn’t know that Japan shared a common border with the Netherlands.

    Im sure you’ve seen the ‘Basil the Rat’ episode of Fawlty Towers where there’s a discussion between Japanese and Dutch veal – I think now I know ( I also could be horribly mistaken) why Fawlty/Cleese was so quick to mention Japan in conjunction with Holland.

  9. You may be right about the Fawlty thing, deucekindred!

    As to Beatrice and Virgil, it’s had some of the most stinking reviews I can remember for a ‘major release’, and I know KevinfromCanada hated it (I don’t think that’s too strong a word), though I don’t know if he intends to review it. I’ll probably hold off and, unless someone I trust gives it acres of praise, I’ll not bother.

  10. Oh, the UK hardback cover is splendid, Kevin. You can’t see it in the photo but it has shiny bits almost etched in. I say almost because they’re not really etched but give a 3D look.

  11. I did hate Beatrice and Virgil, John — indeed I found it offensive. I don’t plan on reviewing it unless it somehow finds its way to some prize list, which I think is unlikely.

  12. I am thrilled to read the good reviews of The Thousand Autumns. I am slowly working my way through Mitchell and find him to be brilliant.

    “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.”

    Aside from being enticing, this summary points up one of Mitchell’s strengths. He manages to write about big ideas without losing intimacy with his characters. Often, writers tend to manage one or the other, but Mitchell seems to be one of the few who manages both aspects exceedingly well. I am still relatively new to his work, but it is the impression I have so far. His ability to manage the two, equally demanding, aspects of the novel is one of the things I really like about him.

    Great review. Thanks for whetting my appetite.

  13. Since it’s one of those books I’m quite sure I will read at some point in the near future I didn’t really delve into the actual review for fear spoiling the reading experience, but I just have to ask:
    In writing “the cumulative nimbleness of Cloud Atlas” were you intentionally going for a play on words with “cumulonimbus cloud”? If you were then chapeau!

  14. Yes Gadi, I know what you mean about spoiling the experience. I do try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but that doesn’t get around the contradiction that (a) when I like a book I aim to persuade other people to read it, but (b) I tend to believe that most books are best approached with no foreknowledge.

    And yes, ‘cumulative nimbleness’ was a deliberate pun. I’m pleased someone noticed it!

  15. I suppose because I’ve never read anything by David Mitchell (I’ve been meaning to read “Cloud Atlas”, really, it just hasn’t come up yet!) I shouldn’t have a necessary drive to read “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”, but I’ve long been fascinated by the Dutch-Japanese relationship (I blame the game Shogun: Total War, and the fact that the Dutch brought guns without missionaries…).

    Would you suggest I read “Cloud Atlas” first, get acquainted with Mitchell as a writer, and then try this one out, or is either all right? Because this review really, really makes me want to read this.

  16. Well if it really, really makes you want to read this one, you should probably read this one, biblibio! Particularly if you have an existing interest in this era.

    Cloud Atlas is probably more immediately seductive (well, it is once you get past the first section) but I do think the new book holds up better as a unified story.

  17. I’m also a huge fan of David Mitchell’s (especially Cloud Atlas which really opened my eyes to the ways in which fiction could be written.) I still have Black Swan Green to read before reading his latest. Can’t wait!

  18. Thanks cb. I haven’t actually read Black Swan Green which I understand to be much more straightforward than his other novels. I interpreted that (perhaps wrongly) as meaning it wasn’t worth bothering with. Do let me know if I’m wrong!

    1. You aren’t wrong, John. BLACK SWAN GREEN is a rather weak effort though it would be considered pretty good as “young adult fiction”. I enjoyed reading most of …JACOB de ZOET but felt it got pulpier as it moved toward it’s conclusion. It hasn’t stayed with me. GHOSTWRITTEN is an amazing experience. I surprised it hasn’t been discussed more. I find it DM’s most satisfying book and it’s why I arrange to get his books on the day of publication.

  19. Perhaps it’s due to the good review/anticipation factor, but I finished this last night, John, and I’m afraid I was disappointed. I liked the story but I left thinking that that was kind of all the book offered. I thought the characters, while likeably good or likeably bad, were developed in a few nice sentences but then never veered from that course, no matter what the plot threw at them, making them, if not the plot, frustratinly predictable. I also felt like he is more subtle and successful at exploring subjugation, the will to power, and exploitation in his other books.

    I have been a fan of David Mitchell for a long time, and while I don’t consider this a failure, I think it’s behind both Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. I’m hoping that as I think about it more, the book will acquire more complexities. I certainly did like his interview in this season’s Paris Review. I read it while reading Jacob de Zoet, and it surprised me that I wasn’t finding the same pleasure in the book.

    I’m still working this out, but I hope to have my review up Monday — perhaps my views will change by then!

  20. Well I look forward to your review, Trevor. I will say that my favourite books tend to be those which stay with me and improve, or mature, in the months after reading. I think Jacob de Zoet has, if anything, diminished in the months since I read it.

    However I still liked it very much, and this was largely on the micro-level. Each scene is perfectly composed and related, usually with a just-so payoff. As to the larger picture, I was moved by the last pages, which essentially showed the futility of a man’s life – everything he knows and does – in the grander scheme of things.

    I have said elsewhere, however, that I think a weakness of Mitchell’s is that thing he takes pride in (which he commented on in the interview I ran with him): that his books lack consistency of voice. Whether this means he is simply a very gifted literary ventriloquist (which comes across very well in Cloud Atlas), or whether it means he has no underpinning philosophy to impart, is not quite – or not yet – clear.

  21. I said much the same things as you, Trevor, though not as eloquently, on the Man Booker forum. This book just didn’t cut it for me. number9dream is the only Mitchell I would rate lower than this one. The other three were excellent, so I will continue to read his books but I found this one quite boring and predictable.

  22. Not to interrupt the debate on that other posting, but my review of Jacob de Zoet is up here. And when I woke up this morning I found James Wood’s review of it in The New Yorker here (this one is free online).

    He must have read my review when I posted it and then spent all night making it much more intelligible and intelligent :). We land on the same side. And he also spends a bit of time lauding Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. An interesting article throughout.

  23. Thanks for the links, Trevor: interesting reviews both. I suspect that the line from Wood’s piece which the publishers will lift for the paperback is, “By any standards, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a formidable marvel.” For what casual browser will bother to check out the qualifications that come before and after?

  24. I’ve just finished this marvellous novel in a rather squished American paperback which they seem to produce for European readers. The fact the text was tiny put me off at first but the narrative was so compelling – exciting at times- that I soon became completely absorbed. I though the language and imagery was beautiful and reminded me of Japanese poetry and books like The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I like your reference to Black Narcissus in the interview – that highly charged pressure cooker atmosphere was conveyed brilliantly in both the film and in this novel.

  25. Thanks for your comment, Mary, and good to see you here again! I must admit my own knowledge of Japanese literature is not terribly good. I hope to remedy that marginally with a couple of Yasunari Kawabata books I bought recently, just reissued by Penguin Modern Classics.

  26. Also worth checking out John:

    Junichiro Tanizaki
    Shusaku Endo
    Akira Yoshimura (I’ve covered two of his over at mine).

    Plus of course Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Yukio Mishima, but everyone knows them.

    Which Kawabata’s do you have? I have Snow Country but haven’t read it yet.

  27. I have Thousand Cranes and The Sound of the Mountain, Max, on the very good grounds that they were the covers I liked best.

    Thanks for the tips on the others. I think Scott Pack’s a fan of Tanizaki. But I’ve never been able to get on with his first love, Haruki Murakami.

  28. I have a Tanizaki on my blog at the moment, but non-fiction. His Diary of a Mad Old Man is very good. The Makioka Sisters and Some Prefer Nettles are both supposed to be excellent, but I’ve yet to read either.

  29. I can recommend The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki. It’s a very good counterpoint to Mishima’s world of men and honour.

  30. Oh dear, I’m just not getting on with this at all. Whilst I agree there is a good story in there, is it a well told story? I think not. The story telling is disjointed and the undoubted intellectual abilities of the story teller suffocate the dialogue. It’s an exhausting read and not because it demands something from the reader (like good literature should) but because there is no flow to the way the story is told, no rhythm and it is simply too rich to breath. There is nothing here that convinces me the author is a good story teller.
    Just my opinion! I’m someone who finishes a book no matter what. This is the first one ever I am teetering on giving up on. Half way through after the longest 3 weeks EVER!

  31. Thanks for the link, John. An excellent piece, I am humbled. The book is now back on the shelf and will not be reopened in a hurry. On to the Melrose saga!

  32. John – a question for you.

    i have the above-reviewed book, but ‘coming to a theatre near me’ (at the Toronto International Film Festival, which was once called ‘The Festival of Festivals’) is ‘Cloud Atlas’. i don’t want to see the movie without reading the book, but i’m wondering if in fact i should be begin at the beginning of Michell’s oeuvre, with ‘Ghostwritten’. on the other hand, it was recommended to me by an ardent fan that i should begin with ‘Number9Dream’.

    so, i’m really confused and could use your help. is Mitchell one of those writers whose development is worth following, or can one dive in anywhere? (lurking in the background is my concern over a mistake i’ve made often enough – reading an author’s best book first, and being disappointed by everything subsequent).

    your time and advice would be appreciated.


  33. Jay, I don’t think you need to read his books in order. I don’t much care for Number9Dream, and I can’t remember much about Ghostwritten, other than that I liked it.

    I’d say Cloud Atlas is his best book, and it’s safe to start there. I haven’t read his most straightforward novel, Black Swan Green, which was his fourth but so ‘normal’ and autobiographical that Mitchell said of it, “I thought it was about time I wrote my first novel.”

    1. that’s great, thanks. i’m assuming, though, that ‘Cloud Atlas’ does not outshine the others by miles – or does it?

  34. I’ve only read Ghostwritten (there’s a review at mine). It’s well written, but it’s basically a shaggy SF novel (rogue AIs, discorporate intelligences, precognition, advanced mathematics, classic stuff – it’s original in how it mixes a grain of fantasy into the SF but the various elements themselves are all ones I’ve seen before, some of them many times). It’s also later on got some frankly terrible bits set in Ireland, which are cringemakingly cliched.

    Despite that I liked it, but I doubt it’s essential.

    I sympathise with the best book first problem though. I did that with Jean Rhys and while it made me a fan, I do rather regret not having it to build up to.

    John, I own Number9Dream, do you recall what you didn’t like about it? You’ve rather worried me.

  35. I don’t exactly, Max, except that it kind of annoyed me. There is a section in it about a creature or person (I can’t even recall which) called Goatwriter, which is famously divisive, though most people seem to think it’s bad. However I think my objections were more general than that.

    1. My unsolicited comment: I loved number9dream. I did think his oeuvre built from Ghostwritten to Cloud Atlas (and I read them in order which was a great experience for me, but hardly necessary). Number9dream is definitely unique and can be a little difficult to follow (as I recall), but I thought it was an incredibly well-done immersive experience.

      All this to say, Max, that you should have neither too high nor too low expectations (particularly with your SF penchant). I think it is possible you will really like it, though, given John’s impeccable taste, maybe you won’t.

      (I have reviewed it at my (temporarily still dormant) blog if you want a fuller description of why I liked it, whether before or after you read it.)

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