October 11, 2011


by David Mitchell
538 pages, Sceptre Books

Review by Marc Nash

David Mitchell is an ornery beast. "Ghostwritten" and "Cloud Atlas" were both books that moved effortlessly across genres within their pages. Then he turned his hand to a coming of age book in "Black Swan Green". Now he addresses one of my least favourite genres, historical fiction. But I kept the faith and have been richly rewarded for doing so with this read.

Set at the dawning cusp of the nineteenth century The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet traces the machinations of a tiny outpost of the Dutch East India Company, trading between Dutch Java and the lone Western trading post in Shogunate Japan, an artificial island Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. Part 1 of the book traces the minutiae of the behaviour and etiquette between the Dutch and their Japanese hosts, through the eyes of the newly arrived eponymous clerk de Groet. An upstanding man among a den of corrupt thieves, guided by his Christian faith which he is not allowed to acknowledge in any way under the strict rules imposed by the Shogun having recently conducted a purge of indigenous Japanese Christians.

What is so glorious about this section is the finely wrought contrast of the etiquette codes and the power games played by each of the characters. There are the deferences demanded before social superiors in both Dutch and Japanese ranks, but the two are so different in kind; the Japanese conducted by ancient codes of honour, the Dutch by venal acquisition and brash economic class. There are slaves at the bottom of the whole heap, too. How the two races conduct business, restricted by rules, oiled by little rebellions, is marvellously portrayed by Mitchell. The translators struggling to grasp new words (particularly those of the century’s advances and discoveries) and nuances of old ones, is exquisitely rendered and subtly drives the whole thing along. The reader is invited to consider language itself, its precisions and imprecisions, for conducting commerce across two nations.

The second section takes place in a remote inland monastery with sinister purposes behind its facade. Here is introduced another layer of etiquette-regulated interaction, that between men and women. A strong, independent woman from section 1 is walled up in the monastery, no more elevated than a slave and in some ways due to her gender, even worse off. Her heroic struggle to preserve some remnant of her independence from before is really powerfully drawn. If anything, the little rebellions here take on far greater life and death implications than those of the traders in part 1.

The final part sees the arrival of the Dutch's economic & naval rivals the British at Dejima. Again Mitchell is supreme in drawing out the subtle differences in national character between the two great European naval powers, even though seemingly they operate in the same acquisitive, colonial world. It is in this section that the novel racks up its suspense and I have to say, demonstrates its lone failing. Since the suspense is allowed to dribble away somewhat unsatisfactorily with an unexplained resolution of the stand-off between Dutch & British. But none of that can spoil what is a wonderful read, with sentences on every page that soar and rear up with their virtuosity.

This paperback edition has an interesting timeline of real events, by which you can see how Mitchell has manouevred certain events around to suit his purposes. But more eye opening is his spirited short essay defending historical fiction. I didn't bite on the essay enough to agree with its logic, but I did fall entirely for Mitchell's historical novel here. Highly recommended.

Wonder what genre he'll tackle next? Steampunk?

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