Wednesday, February 23, 2011


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

By David Mitchell

This is a long awaited novel. So long awaited that I bought the hard copy, not willing to wait for the paperback edition. Because Mitchell is an all time favourite. Ranks up there along with Murakami, Rushdie, Ghosh and Seth.

This is Japan in the late 18th century. A country so completely closed to the outside world that an outsider learns Japanese at the risk of being put to death. And then there is a tiny trading outpost called Dejima, outside Nagasaki. Where a handful of Dutch East India Company men are holed up. Dejima is the only small outlet of exchange between an increasingly colonised world and the Japanese kingdom. The Dutch have trading rights with closed Japan but are losing out to the other European powers - the British and the French, in the rest of the world.

Jacob De Zoet is a young Dutchman just come into Dejima. He is a Dutch bookkeeper out in the Orient to earn fame and fortune to win his beloved Anna back home. Brought in to clean up financial irregularities in the Dutch trading company, Jacob soon realizes there is little an honest clerk can do in the face of greed and temptation so far away from home.

It is an interesting cast of characters - a Dutch doctor dispensing Western medicinal knowledge to the Japanese in return for being allowed some exploration into a locked-to-the-world Japan; an ambitious Prussian clerk; Japanese interpreters curious about the Europeans and ready to profit from them too; slaves; labourers from Asia; Australian convicts; a hodge podge of people worthy of a Mitchell novel.

Jacob soon falls in love. With Orito Aibagawa, Japanese, beautiful, scarred, forbidden. She is a student of Dr. Marinus, allowed freedoms forbidden normally to women because she saved a magistrate's mistress's life and that of her son, during his birth. But the love is doomed. She is taken captive by a cult run by a monk wielding immense power in the capital. The triangle of Jacob, Aibagawa and her Japanese paramour who is also Jacob's translator is intense and quite heart-stoppingly tragic.

Parts of the novel read like a thriller. But there is no daring escape, no really happy ending for anybody. Evil is defeated but at a price. It is an autocratic cruel time that Mitchell describes. No one can really escape the tyranny of absolute power. Lowly bookkeepers, women, lowly translators, slaves... all are forced to submit to a class system somewhere. But world events do intervene to shape individual fates. A British warship in search of Japanese treasure attacks Dejima. Jacob's bravery in facing off this warship transforms his status. But he does not get the girl he loves. Nobody does. A magistrate's inevitable disgrace on not being prepared for the raid enables him to bring down an evil monk and his cult that had imprisoned Aibagawa. But he does lose his life in the process. And Aibagawa's hard-won freedom does not unite her with the man who loves her. It is a bit tragic and hopeful all at once.

This quaint historical setting is surprising if only for its rarity. Did you even know the Dutch were once in Japan? And why would this interest a globalised, digitised world today? Strangely enough it proves mesmerizing, with Mitchells' almost magical storytelling ability. He spins a very good yarn.

There is none of Mitchell's trademark gymnastics with point of view. He tells this story straight and with more than a little poetry. And makes you see the magic in the isolation, the enchantment in a Shangri-La-esque far corner of the world, a land of a thousand autumns. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is Mitchell at quite his best. And so I would say, that means it is one of the best stories you would ever read. Such is my faith in the man.