Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell's latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, is difficult to categorize.  While it certainly fits comfortably within the vaguely defined genre of "historical fiction," it is also a love story, an adventure story, and a Nipponese horror story, all laced with a goodly share of intrigue and mystery.  It is an ambitious work.

The novel is set in 1799, in the area around Nagasake, in xenophobic, isolationist Japan.  The Dutch East Indies company, Japan's sole trading partner with the outside world, is confined to the islet of Dejima, lying in Nagasake harbor, a tiny European gateway into the opaque island nation at the end of the shogun era.  Jacob De Zoet is an enterprising young man out to make his fortune in the Orient. As he immerses himself in this alien world, he falls in love with Orito, the gifted Japanese midwife and befriends Uzaemon, a deeply moral Japanese interpreter.  He quickly finds himself stranded in a foreign land, with no prospects, embroiled in black market corruption, and on the bad side of powerful entities, including a sinister Japanese cult.

A theme of isolation due to incomprehension laces the story as the various characters struggle to communicate linguistically, emotionally, intellectually.  Their failures bring about consequences that are sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic.

Any examination of pre-modern Japan, of course, invites comparison with James Clavell's novel, Shogun, which depicts Japan some 200 years previous to Thousand Autumns.  Readers will quickly notice the similarities between Clavell's and Mitchell's Japan.  In fact, Shogun can almost serve as prequel to Mitchell's novel.

But Mitchell's skill far surpasses that of Clavell.  Mitchell writes in a terse, stripped down style that (dare I say it?) reminded me of Hemingway.  And although laconic, his prose does not lack in imagery or poetic flourish.  Mitchell seems to have an inherent knack for injecting scene descriptions at precisely the right intervals to allow the reader to fill in the gaps, to complete what John Gardner called the "indispensable fictional dream." 

Further, Mitchell proves himself a master writer with his use of vernacular in dialog.  Dutch traders speak crude doggerel.  Japanese officials employ language with precision and dignity.  English naval officers adhere to exaggerated military courtesy and decorum.

The book is peopled with fascinating characters:  gruff and humane Doctor Marinus, world-weary Captain Penhaligon, duty-ridden Chamberlain Tomine.  Mitchell uses humor and horror and wistful longing to great effect at various points in the story.  And it's all stitched together seamlessly.

I read the book as this month's selection for my book discussion group (Monsieurs Kidwell, Johnson and Kemmerer) and the unanimous conclusion was that the novel is fantastic.  Highly entertaining, eloquent, poignant and poetic.  I've appended David Mitchell's name to my list of favorite authors.  I highly recommend this book.

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