Lively Immersion

October 13, 2011

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2010

Reviewed by Rosalie Ham

Some professions require that we deconstruct and construct novels and subsequently risk becoming jaded. So it was exciting to find myself still reading David Mitchell’s book beyond page fifty. I found I wasn’t able to predict what was going to happen next. In his (long) review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, James Wood says, ‘Despite the novel’s liveliness and deep immersion in the foreignness of its world, there is something a bit mystifying about its distance from contemporary life, something a little contrived in its brilliant autonomy. The publisher promises “a bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history,” and this is not wrong, except that choosing rarely visited points in history for novelization seems to lack inner necessity.” (‘The New Yorker’, 5/7/2010)

Wood further emphasises his point by explaining that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace ‘because he felt compelled to examine and dramatize a great national crisis.’ But the reasons this reader enjoyed The Thousand Years of Jacob de Zoet are because of its distance from ‘contemporary life’ in a ‘rarely visited point in history,’ and more significantly, because it’s not about a ‘great national crisis’ the story lacks ‘inner necessity,’ and this makes it bold. To read a bold and epic story about an historically significant point in history is one thing, but to visit that place and time via a story that doesn’t express events in a familiar or unremarkable way, to encounter a situation that enriched my wonderment of a somewhat obscure, exotic and strange situation in history was to be amazed, excited and delighted. And to then discover that the book does not follow an expected path to reach an ending that sees all characters happily concluded in a story line that makes perfect sense in terms of fictional outcomes, was to be further rewarded.

In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the time is the turn of the 18th century, the place Nagasaki Bay and the tiny man-made island if Dejima where the Dutch East India Company is situated for the purposes of limited trade with Japan, that country maintaining its isolation from the rest of the world after the Portuguese have been expelled (1610). Dejima is for the reader a closely guarded portal into the forbidden, the alluring ‘other’. The main protagonist of the novel is an upright and naive redhead, a Dutch hero who presents as less than heroic, and is also the unlikely source of what passes as romance. Initially, Jacob de Zoet’s role is to identify corruption in the Dutch East India Company, a task that puts him at odds with almost every countryman he has in the book. It therefore stands to reason in this unpredictable story the object of Jacob de Zoet’s ardour is – naturally – a beautiful but disfigured midwife, Miss Orito Aibagawa. Being Japanese, Miss Aibagawa is (naturally) forbidden, but she is a resourceful character with a subdued vitality and her talent as a midwife both condemns her to slavery in a remote fortress-like sacrificial baby factory, and also proves to be her escape from the slavery of that factory. Jacob de Zoet is not alone in failing to heroically rescue Miss Aibagawa, and as with Jacob’s said failed rival (Uzaemon), the love between Miss Aibagawa and de Zoet also does not end in familial happiness. In fact, their story lines diverge partway through the novel and only converge again briefly to be again, parted. Yet the need to know what eventually will happen to these two protagonists is only equally compelling as the other character arcs and sub-stories in the layers and textures of this richly imagined story. We are present as the many characters and customs of Netherlands and Japan clash over hierarchy, fine metals, fabric, protocol, language, cheese, butter, money and medical supplies among many other treasures. These skirmishes take place in the far-reaching scope and breadth of the narrative, in Dejima and the parts of Japan we are allowed to visit, and the tone of place is succinctly realised.

‘Twilight is cold with the threat of snow. The forest’s edges dissolves and blurs…A dead branch cracks under a deer’s hoof across the loud stream. An owl cries, in this cedar or that fir…once, twice, dear, gone.’ (173)

Only sometimes are the scenes too contrived; ‘The river below is a drunk, charging boulders and barging banks.’ (287)

For the cast of dozens, Japan and Dejima are not safe places, so the reader hosts a sustained, subtle, exhilarating fear through many of the 469 pages. Most of the characters are human, some inhuman, some grotesque, some corrupt, some lewd. Satisfyingly, few are without flaws. Among the varied characters are slaves, prostitutes, emperors, officials, magistrates, courtiers, doctors, warriors, corrupt officials, assassins, translators, clerks with fetid halitosis and a mischievous ape. They are varied, unique, made memorable because some are allowed small ‘set pieces’ where their best and worst is fleshed out; despotic pasts, abandoned families. Yet each small cameo is gently written and the full spotlight allows that they be fixed in our memory in relief. Between them, these characters make us voyeurs into vivid, funny and painful scenes, such as the first scene that sets the tone: an accurate and vivid description of a long and gruesome breach birth. There are also informative descriptions of an amputation, mass decapitations, a demonstration of a kidney stone extraction via the anus with the assistance of a ‘smoke glister’, and a doomed assault on Dejima by the British (HMS Phaeton) that actually took place in 1872. I learned a lot but was never conscious of it.

Mitchell has been criticised for lacking his own voice in his novels. ‘Mimic’ is a word I encountered in some reviews, even ‘ventriloquist,’ but my encounter with Japanese society in Dejima in the early 1700s and the blundering, opportunistic Dutch meant that I was included in the story, let in on the jokes, and the events were described to me in lively voices that changed smoothly from the Dutch perspective to the Japanese perspective to the entertaining and back to the engaging narrator. The narrative voices were what I found most entertaining about this book. Some might say the secret to a good story is that you are rather than you are told, but in this case, the intricate and skilled artifice of the prose was saved from a strident and contrived tone because his was the voice of a conjurer. It’s the artful voice of the expert storyteller that realises the empathy and ‘lively immersion’ of this tale. Such was the choice of the narrator’s words and the way he places us up close, in front of the action – the closeness of the ‘psychic distance’ some would call it – that the set pieces and the cast of dozens and the intriguing sub-plots sprang to life and made everything entirely believable, and I kept turning the pages, which is the point.

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