I know in my heart that this is really another amazing novel from David Mitchell and that I will be more vocal in its praises as soon as I re-read it. I’ve left it’s standing at “really good,” however, because I took too long to read it and it lost a bit of its power over me as a result. As further testament to its excellence, however, I’ll note that it is has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize and I’ll be routing for it with all my heart.
Mitchell’s 5th novel represents his first foray in historical fiction, transporting his readers to 18th Century Japan, specifically the Dutch East Indies trading post of Dejima. It is the story of a Dutch clerk who falls in love with a Japanese midwife, but even a classic tale of frustrated love becomes anything but conventional in Mitchell’s hands. Jacob is a pious, honest man floundering in a sea of corruption. Through a truly incredible sequence of events, he becomes the lynchpin of Mitchell’s tale, determining the fates of the Dutch East Indies, Co., the midwife Orito, and a mysterious monastery high in the mountains of Japan.
It is good to remember that Japan at that time was essentially closed to the world, letting only a select few within its borders; conversely only a select few were allowed out, so there is a mystery that borders on mysticism associated with the Land of 1,000 Autumns and its culture. In a radio interview
on NPR, Mitchell refers to Dejima as a “little keyhole” in this secluded empire, where foreign and Japanese cultures could come together. He makes good use of this mystique while paying scrupulous attention to the specifics of 18th century life in order to reanimate life on Dejima, allowing it to become a portal once more.
An extensive cast of characters peoples the landscape of this narrative: Dutch and British seamen, merchants, doctors, and clerks; Japanese monks, royalty, samurai, and translators; and an impish monkey named William Pitt. In that same interview I heard Mitchell discuss what a challenge it was not only to create unique, believable voices for each character but voices that also sounded authentic to the time period:
“What language are these people speaking? If you try to get it right, if you try to get authentic 18th century speech you end up sounding like “Black Adder,” you end up sounding like pastiche. If, on the other hand, you don’t, you don’t convince your reader that the language, you know, smells authentic, then – bubble of fiction is popped because the reader’s thinking, hang on, this sounds like speech that could have been from a sitcom I saw last week.
So you have to sort of create what I came to think of as a bygone-ese kind of dialect, which is not in fact completely plausible. It doesn’t really work if you have characters using the word harken, for example. But which still smells and has the right texture of 18th century speech. And it’s tough to do that. It’s tough to work out exactly how to do it.”
But work it out, he does, and in so doing he presents a truly unique slice of life. His attention to detail and gift for language merge seamlessly in The 1,000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
This also marks the first time he has produced a book written with fairly standard 3rd person narration. It results in frequent shifts in location and character perspective, where Michell effortlessly scoops up his readers, unresisting as blue footed boobies, and deposits them gently in a new part of his narrative arena. It is a mark of his skill as a writer that he can so easily establish that kind of trust in his reader and it is one of the things I most enjoy about his novels. You may not know why something happens or where a certain plot is leading, but there’s never any doubt that it will all come together in the end. With David Mitchell you are guaranteed to truly experience whatever story he chooses to tell and, to me, that carries with it a certain kind of magic.
My favorite word to send me to the dictionary: Plenipotentiary
My favorite quotes:
“Needle tips of birdsong stitch and thread the thicket’s many layers.”
“…their house was a trove of books. To this printed garden, I was given the keys.”
Currently reading: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman