The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

by Robert A. Parker

This highly imaginative 2010 novel is far different from Cloud Atlas. There is one setting, Nagasaki, one time frame, around 1800, and one hero, Jacob de Zoet. It offers a rich blend of romance, adventure, and international intrigue in this story of Western vs. Eastern love, slavery vs. freedom, isolation vs. global trade, and a closed vs. an open society, plus the ramifications of murder and revenge, corruption and integrity, and justice and death.

Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk who commits himself to five years in the Orient in order to earn his fortune and be able to marry a Dutch woman back home. But events conspire to keep him on the Dutch island enclave of Dejima, next to Nagasaki. He falls in love with a disfigured midwife, Orito, and fails to act when he sees her kidnapped. Eventually, the guilt he feels will guide has subsequent actions and enforce his later integrity.

Because Jacob has been sent by the Dutch East Indies Company to end the corruption at the outpost and to straighten its books, he becomes involved in the political intrigue there and its power players. As a result, he makes many enemies, and is even demoted when he refuses to accept the corruption of the departing chief. But he does find one friend in Doctor Marinus, a Dutch doctor who was training Orito before she was kidnapped.

Meanwhile, the reader follows the kidnapped Orito to a temple where she helps other kidnapped women give birth to babies that later disappear. This temple life leads to two brilliant scenes. In one, the better, Orito contrives to escape, only to turn back in order to help a close friend through a difficult birth. In the other, her Japanese suitor attempts to storm the temple with a band of armed men, only to be betrayed. His is the first of the deaths that will flavor this romantic tale with a dose of reality.

Reality also includes a conflict between the Dutch and Japanese cultures, and between the Dutch and British empires. The cultural conflict is more significant in literary terms, as it involves tradition vs. innovation and fate vs. risk. The tradition and fate come from the Japanese culture, a culture the author experienced when he himself taught for many years at Hiroshima. (Was it fate when he discovered the actual Dutch island redoubt at Nagasaki?)

The cultural clash is re-enforced by amusing sidebar conversations among de Zoet, who is learning Japanese, and various translators. In this way, Mitchell continually reminds us that his Western and Eastern characters have such different ways of looking at the same world.

That world also includes the rivalry between the Dutch and British empires, which is brought to a head when a British warship enters Nagasaki harbor with the intent of taking over Japan’s trade agreement with the Dutch. We board the English warship Phoebus and witness the political and military maneuvering of its crew and its Captain Penhaligon. There is also a debate, as in the Dutch enclave, about the integrity of their strategy, which is resolved here somewhat arbitrarily when the captain sees in the courageous de Zoet the image of his own late son.

This is the climax of the novel, which then winds slowly down, revealing the eventual fate of the surviving characters. It is a routine ending that has been the product of a vivid imagination and a fascinating exploration of the contrast between cultures and the different values in those cultures.

Several years ago, Mitchell said in an interview: “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives.” He has certainly done so here, especially when he takes us from the rooms of the Dutch enclave and the cabins of the English warship to the halls of both the villain and the Japanese magistrates. There is a blend of the fantasy of a storyteller and the realism of a historian.

Mitchell has also written: “One of the questions I always try to keep in the front of my mind is to ask why would anyone want to read this…People’s time, if you bought it off them, is expensive. Someone’s going to give you eight or ten hours of their life. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.” And this he certainly achieves in this flowing and fascinating story of an innocent Dutchman encountering corruption, then love, then integrity, and finally courage in a foreign world with a far longer perspective toward life than exists in Western culture. Indeed, the title that refers to the thousand autumns of Jacob also refers to the perspective with which Japan regards its own history—and perhaps to Jacob’s identification with that history.

To sum up, this story of Westerners struggling to survive in a Japanese world of different values is a marvelous achievement. It also required considerable research to bring that Japanese world alive. For it is a world of isolation, cruelty, and fate, and yet a world of decorum and mystery.

It is also a world of fantasy, especially the temple of sacrificed children, as well as a world of reality, such as the English warship that actually entered Nagasaki harbor—although, historically, a few years later. But this later point demonstrates how Mitchell used his research and actual history in order to make real not only the action of this novel but also the cultural context of this strange world in which that action takes place. One critic calls this novel, “the triumph of decorum and honor in a world of corruption and perversion.” It is true, if you understand that the decorum and the perversion belong to both cultures.

As Nathan Weatherford notes in his review, “By methodically showing us at the outset of the novel how outwardly different in custom and costume the two cultures are, he makes the personal similarities between characters on each side of this cultural divide that much more apparent in subsequent chapters, [as] the choices made by characters from each culture all hinge on the same basic fears and loves.” He also calls the “intricately structured” international relations, “a metaphor for the inner struggle going on in each character’s soul.”

This work achieves all of that, blending history and imagination, romance and reality, innocence and evil, and the justice of fate. (November, 2015)

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