The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
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Reviewed by Ted Gioia
A novel about mercantilism and the Dutch East India Company? Surely
David Mitchell misread the email from his agent. The post-colonial
novel is what publishers and academics want right now. And instead
this stubborn author has given us a pre-post-colonial novel!
Then again, Mitchell probably didn't misread the email. This cussed
scribe always ignores the instructions from headquarters. His best
known book Cloud Atlas, with its playful mixture
of genres and juxtaposition of plots, would never
have made it through the screening committee
for the MFA creative writing program at [fill in
the name of your favorite college or university].
There’s more Asimov, Gaiman and Le Guin
floating around in his head than Updike, Carver
and Munro, and if these predecessors are still
whispering to him at his age (forty-one at the
time of this new novel's release), there’s
probably no hope for the chap.
The hero of his new book, The Thousand
Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is much the same.
He also ignores instructions from power
brokers, violates conventions and taboos, mixes it up with the
unblessed and uncatechized—and somehow manages to flourish
through it all. Even so, you can’t call Jacob de Zoet a renegade. He
maintains fierce loyalty to his values and ideals, as well as to God and
country. This very unwillingness to compromise is both a source of
his heroism….and of his tribulations and melancholy.
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Rejected as a suitor by his beloved’s father, because of his inadequate
social standing and prospects, de Zoet agrees to a five-year posting as
a clerk for the Dutch East India Company in Japan, where he hopes to
make his fortune and prove his worthiness to his prospective father-in-
law. But a career in Japan at this point is tantamount to confinement
on Dejima, a small artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki, where the
Dutch are allowed to operate a trading post—but not much else. They
cannot travel freely. They are constantly observed by guards and
spies. They are discouraged from learning the language. And the
possession of any Christian book or object is strictly prohibited. Our
hero has reason to be concerned about each of these stipulations.
Mitchell vividly portrays the claustrophobic yet exotic quality of day-to-
day life in this European outpost on the brink of foreign soil. The
sights, the sounds, the smells, and of course the sociology are
presented with almost visceral intensity, yet these elements are so well
integrated into the unfolding plot, that the reader is never left feeling—
as with so many historical novels—that the author’s research is
overwhelming his storytelling.
Nor, for all the scenery, can you mistake the fact that this novel is
character-driven. Each member of the foreign contingent on Dejima is
fully fleshed out, and Mitchell has given most of them, at some point in
the book, a lengthy monologue to recount a decisive incident or period
in their past lives. Mitchell has proven elsewhere that he is the master
of the “story within a story,” and he does so again here: these
desultory first-person narratives, while mostly peripheral to the overall
plot, make for riveting reading. One marvels over a novelist who has
such a plethora of tales at his command that even these inessential
“throwaway” set pieces could stand alone as first class short stories.
Dejima wheeler and dealer Arie Grote relates his personal confession
one night over a game of cards:
So I ran away from Pa….an’ off I tromped to Amsterdam, seekin’
fortune an’ true love, eh? But the only love I saw was what’s paid for
in cash afore an’ clap in arrears, an’ not a sniff of a fortune. Nah,
hunger was all I found, snow an’ ice an’ cutpurses what fed off the
weak like dogs….
Later in the book, the carpenter Con Twomey begins his tale:
My true name is Fiacre Muntevary, and I wasn't pressed. How I left
Ireland’s a stranger story altogether. One icy St. Martin’s Day, a block
of stone slipped and crushed Da like a beetle. I did my best to fill his
boots, like, but the world is not a merciful place….
Head clerk Peter Fischer launches his monologue as follows:
My platoon had gone to cleanse the basin of runaway slaves who
attack in gangs. The colonists call them ‘Rebels’: I call them
'Vermin.’ We had burnt many of their nests and yam fields, but the
dry season overtook us, when Hell has no worst hole….
In the interests of brevity, I only present the opening lines here, which
hardly indicate the magic of this author’s pen. But even these few
sentences show how richly Mitchell sets the table, and how quickly he
draws the reader into the personal histories of even his minor
Ah, these are only side dishes to the main course here: clerk de Zoet’s
struggles against intrigues, both homegrown and foreign-made. Over
the course of this picaresque novel, he takes on a host of adversaries:
corrupt Dutch traders, a maniacally evil Japanese abbot, a well-armed
British frigate, and various spies, emissaries and jealous colleagues.
We even get a taste of magic—dark magic—and mysticism, lest anyone
make the mistake of thinking that Mitchell has written a conventional
historical novel. Against these elements, our novelist superimposes
two romantic subplots: one focused on the girl back home, and the
other revolving around a Japanese woman closer at hand (but never
too close)—both of which illustrate the wisdom of Shakespeare’s adage
that "the course of true love never did run smooth."
A story set some two hundred years in the past could hardly be called
autobiographical, yet with this author nothing is what it seems on the
surface. It is worth noting that Mitchell’s own personal history
includes lengthy stints in Japan, where he met his wife Keiko Yoshida.
One suspects that many of the elements that contribute to the
verisimilitude of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are drawn
from personal experience, but transfigured in the fervent imagination
of this often iconoclastic writer.
With this novel, Mitchell validates the praise and honors accorded to his
previous efforts. Now in his early middle age, and with five novels to
his credit, Mitchell is no longer a promising young novelist. He
warrants consideration as one of the leading authors of our time. The
fact that he could achieve this whilst coming across as so unaffected by
the trends and dictates of the book biz is not just testimony to his
own talent, but also a sign that the coordinates of modern literary life
may well be changing. Who can tell where this will lead? But I have a
hunch that the rule-breaking of David Mitchell today will probably serve
as a role model for more than a few other authors of tomorrow.
Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.
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