The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
That the cover of the trade paperback edition of David Mitchell’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is the spitting image of that of Hendrik Doeff’s nineteenth-century memoir, Recollections of Japan, is no small coincidence. Both covers, characterized by traditional Japanese art-inspired illustrations, depict the arrival of a large Western ship on Japanese shores. And rightly so, as both books tell of the experiences — fictional in one, real in the other — of an Occident living and working in Japan. For all intents and purposes, the title character of Mitchell’s book is the literary doppelganger of Doeff. As was Doeff, the imagined de Zoet is employed in the Dutch East Indies Company trading post in Japan during the latter part of the Edo period. But the similarities don’t end there: the books’ correspondence also extends to the reality of the accounts laid out within their covers and around their protagonists. While Doeff’s book, a record of his personal observations and experiences during his stint in a foreign land, bears essential truth, Mitchell’s is a work of historical fiction — but it’s one that could very nearly pass for a parallel nonfiction novel, a rarity which possesses as great a verisimilitude as only an uncommonly talented writer like Mitchell could achieve.
Mitchell is the diametric opposite of a one-trick pony in the world of contemporary literature. He is a highly original novelist whose books are never populated with blatant literary archetypes and never borne along on worn-out plots. His four previous novels, most notably the Booker-shortlisted postmodern circus called Cloud Atlas, attest to his creativity and dexterity. So, too, does Thousand Autumns, even as it’s his most conventional work yet. As opposed to Cloud Atlas, which skips erratically through time, and his debut, Ghostwritten, which takes place across the globe, Thousand Autumns is concerned with a single main setting: Japan, the Land of a Thousand Autumns, at the turn of the nineteenth century.
It’s 1799, and Dutchman Jacob de Zoet is one of only a few foreigners allowed entry into feudal Japan. He works as a clerk for the trading post in Dejima, a man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki where European traders and their servants maintain temporary residence. Here clashes between Western and Eastern cultures and displays of power and greed both from within and without Jacob’s company are not uncommon. Like copper and mercury, ulterior motives are a prime commodity. But not to the eponymous lead character, who is remarkably pious and morally upright in doing his pecuniary tasks and in dealing with his kinsmen and their narrow-eyed hosts. Ordered by Japanese law to surrender all Christian artifacts in his possession, he daringly hides his Psalter, a life-saving (literally, as it stopped a bullet from reaching his grandfather’s heart) family heirloom. Asked to tamper with an official document in favor of his chief, who bribes him with a significant job promotion, he heeds his conscience and disobeys only to be cast out and trampled on up the corporate ladder. Overwhelmed by his deepening affections towards a facially disfigured yet still beautiful Japanese midwife named Aibagawa Orito, Jacob recalls that interracial romances are prohibited and commands himself to hold back. And hold back he does, but not for long.
It’s this element of forbidden love that forms the centerpiece of this otherwise tiresome tale of sailors and shoguns. Although Jacob thinks “Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable… as a woman in a picture… spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon once in a lifetime” and desperately tries to convince himself that “It is dear Anna whom I love… and I whom Anna loves” since his neighbor Anna, after all, is the reason he is working as a bookkeeper thousands of miles away from her, so that he may accumulate enough wealth to persuade her father to give him her hand in marriage, Jacob eventually caves in to his emotions and decides to pursue the untouchable. But he no sooner declares his sentiments to Miss Aibagawa than she mysteriously drops out of sight. Through a surprisingly thrilling second act in which Jacob, oddly but not inexplicably, all but dissipates from the narrative and is outshone by Ogawa Uzaemon, an intrepid Japanese interpreter who is also enamored of Miss Aibagawa, it is revealed that the young woman was abducted at the behest of Lord Abbot Enomoto, a powerful and menacing old man hiding under a veneer of religious benevolence. A more discouraging revelation is the place where she was spirited away, a nunnery where women are fooled into being impregnated by Enomoto’s band of monks. A rescue operation set out by Jacob and Ogawa is soon underway. Consequently, hopes are either renewed or shattered, trusts are either nurtured or betrayed, and battles are either won or lost. The world, ever-changing, keeps spinning.
Mitchell does an excellent job of delineating a secluded environment and its inhabitants caught in a churning machinery of progress and depravity. On top of numerous well-researched accuracies, which he makes a point of camouflaging and re-camouflaging (or as one character puts it, “I must… hide that I am hiding it.”), his descriptions of setting and character perched at the precipice of change border on cinematographic majesty. And like brief musical interludes, terse one-sentence paragraphs that shade into lines of poetry (“Out in the street, dogs run past, barking murderously.” “A fat fly traces a lazy oval through light and shadow.”) are scattered within the novel. These instances of poetic white noise, apart from being reminders of the author’s reputation as a stylist of a high order, are indications of significant things to come in the life of his protagonist and the rest of his huge cast of characters, such as the death of an ally at the hands of another and the re-birth of a beleaguered empire.
Thousand Autumns, Mitchell’s own Recollections of Japan, is centered on an old-fashioned love story. It is an almost fairy-tale complete with villainous men of authority, women in mortal peril, and a cunning little monkey named William Pitt. It is, also, a decidedly protracted haiku that celebrates the triumph and beauty of this world, which, as Mitchell ventriloquizes to an enlightened character near the end of the novel, “contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.”