Reviewed by Em Angevaare
It’s the turn of the nineteenth century, and the island empire of Japan has kept itself closed off from the world for a long time. Its only Western trading partner, circumscribed by strict and elaborate rules, is the Dutch Republic. Foreigners are not allowed to set foot in Japan, so the Dutch are confined to an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay: Dejima. All Western trade with Japan must go through Dejima, and the English, who are at war with the Republic, would dearly like a slice of it. They even send a frigate into the bay to try and seize a Dutch trading vessel’s cargo. Dejima suffers some damage in the attack, but the English sail away again without accomplishing anything. With the Dutch Republic occupied by France, Dejima remains the only place in the world still flying the Dutch flag.
But that is in the future when Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk with the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, arrives at this tightly controlled amalgam of two cultures. He is glad to have escaped a long posting in Batavia, and intent on returning to his fiancée in Holland after five years. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the story of how Jacob turns into the man who defied the English and kept Dejima for the Dutch. On the island he meets Aibagawa Orito, the only woman to study under the Dutch doctor Marinus, and despite the rules and traditions forbidding such contact they start a tentative friendship. The stage seems set for a cross-cultural love story, but this is not about a clash of cultures. That book would have been easier to write, and not half as interesting to read. It is about the clash within cultures, about individuals who, by arguing against received wisdom, little by little, change their world. They all fight, Orito against superstition, Jacob against corruption, both against tradition and the English captain Penhaligon against his better judgement. When Orito is taken away to the shrine of Mount Shiranui against her will, Jacob finds that he has both unexpected enemies and allies.
It’s a sad story, in places horrifying, but that is not the impression you get when reading. David Mitchell understands something that few writers ever acknowledge, that a life cannot be summed up neatly, that the labels ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ are singularly unhelpful, that there are just moments following each other, and that people live them as best they know how. The novel doesn’t highlight its atrocities, but develops naturally, revealing the real story in the details. It won’t blow you away like Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas did. It has a stillness, a coolness that almost disguises how much really happens. Only a very accomplished writer could have told this story without it becoming sentimental or sensational, and David Mitchell does it beautifully. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a book that needs to be read at least twice, to notice all the small subtle things you missed the first time, and to really appreciate how skilfully Mitchell has told his tale.
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