Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Imagine a little island off the coast of Nagasaki crowded with warehouses, and inhabited by a dozen Dutchmen and their Japanese spies. It is connected to the mainland by a tiny bridge, which for the most part only the Japanese can use; the Europeans need special permission. On the other side, the sea gate is open for just a short time each year.

The island was Dejima. For the hundreds of years that Japan was almost entirely closed to the world – entering or leaving was a capital crime – Dejima was the solitary trading port. The Dutch had an exclusive license to trade, and they maintained a base on Dejima of staff and warehouses, trading with Japan and providing a small window to Europe. With the exception of licensed traders, translators and scholars, no one else was allowed onto or off the island.

This is the fascinating world in which David Mitchell's latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, is set. Jacob is an honest clerk, come to weed out the corruption that is rife on Dejima while working for a boss who is not as straightforward as he seems. At first glance, the story appears to be about Jacob's time on Dejima and his relationships there: with the lovely Orito, the Japanese midwife studying Western anatomy at the hospital; with a translator, Ogawa; and with his fellow employees of the Dutch East India Company.

However, as the book gathers pace we spend time with Orito and Ogawa on the mainland, where Orito is required to work as midwife to the sisters of a sinister shrine; with Penhaligon, the captain of a British man-of-war sent to capture or destroy this window into Japanese trade; and with Shiroyama, the magistrate in Nagasaki caught out by historical events. Ultimately, the novel turns out to be far larger, accompanying a cast of characters as they grapple with culture, duty, vocation and faith in different ways, and as they make and interpret their moral choices.

On Dejima, Jacob's home, all activity was observed and reported; spies were everywhere. All interactions were limited and observed; accidental meetings were rare. Dutch-Japanese conversation was filtered through none-too-skilled translators who were forbidden to study abroad; they learned the language piecemeal from whatever the Dutchmen living on Dejima were prepared to teach them. The Dutch, on the other hand, were forbidden from learning Japanese. These limitations on the story – limitations of coincidence, conversation and time unobserved – are terrific hurdles to a novelist; nevertheless, Mitchell manages to weave a riveting story out of short meetings, awkward conversations, and layers of meanings in every utterance.

Mitchell uses several techniques to convey the stiltedness of life on Dejima. For one, all conversations are rendered in a deliberately awkward way: almost every phrase is split in two, thus '"The Doctor's disbelief," [Doctor] Marinus peers at the label on the Rhenish "is a natural reaction to vainglorious piffle."' I found this technique hard going, at times, almost squinting to skip the central bit of each phrase; but it gives a sense of conversations translated, clarified and filtered between the participants. Too, the book is written in the present tense. This is always an awkward tense for fiction; it's certainly more difficult for the reader, pushing one away rather than drawing one in. Like the conversational style, however, it reflects the awkwardness of every situation on Dejima, and is therefore perhaps a deliberate mechanism to enhance that feeling.

The novel is split into three sections. Within each section, Mitchell uses what he calls different narrative hats. In the first, apart from a brief story about Orito, we see the world through Jacob's eyes; in the second, Orito and Ogawa tell the story; and in the third, we hear from Jacob, Penhaligon and Shiroyama. This gives a fascinating shift of perspectives from west to east and back again. The increasing number of narrative voices in each section also gives the story impetus, moving from the slow transition of Jacob onto the island to the whirling narrative at the end.

Readers of Mitchell's other books will already be familiar with his extraordinary ability to portray wildly varying characters, and he succeeds again here. The different voices think and speak in ways that feel true. Orito speaks in platitudes and with very few pronouns, as was proper for a Japanese woman. The translators are fascinating in their Japanese rendering of Dutch phrases, interpreted to please all masters; and Jacob, the lonely, homesick and honest clerk staying just this side of priggishness, is sympathetically drawn.

However, for all this cleverness I think these narrative devices make this book less enjoyable than some of Mitchell's others. The shifts between voices made me feel mildly abandoned, at times, as the story moved to another character; and the sheer number of voices felt less chorus and more cacophony. For example, we have a lone chapter told through the eyes of a slave, which, while interesting, adds nothing much to the thrust of the narrative. Too, the use of the present tense and the breaking up of the conversations, while stylistically admirable, ultimately intrude into the telling of a rollicking tale. The book feels one rewrite short of Mitchell's usual mastery, with some breathtakingly clunky phrasing that really grates.

Yet it also contains some absolutely wonderful pieces of writing, such as Magistrate Shiroyama's meditation as he waits to carry out a judgment with devastating consequences:

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls and treble-bolted doors. Gulls alight on white-washed gables, creaking pagodas and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells...' , a prose poem which continues for a page and a half and ends in a 'puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

Overall, Mitchell inhabits and conveys east and west in a captivating way; and gives the reader a powerful sense of another time and place through the eyes of characters from widely differing backgrounds while raising important questions about how people make moral decisions. I may have reservations about the stylistic devices, but every book by Mitchell is good. Thousand Autumns is thought provoking, deeply absorbing, and ultimately very moving.

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