Brief summary and review, no spoilers.
The story begins in the year 1799, and most of the action takes place on the man-made island of Dejima in Nagasaki, Japan. This is the farthest outpost of the Dutch East Indies Company and foreigners are kept restricted to the island. It's the only contact point between Japan and the West.
This epic tale starts out dramatically with a young midwife helping a Japananese magistrate's concubine with a difficult birth. The midwife is named Orito Aibagawa, and she has a disfiguring scar on one side of her face. With the support of her father she begins to study medicine under the tutelage of the brilliant Doctor Marinus.
After this dramatic opening, we are introduced to Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch clerk who has just arrived in Dejima. Jacob is hoping to work for 5 years and make enough money to go home and marry his fiancee. He stands out not simply because he is so virtuous and decent, but also because of the color of his hair - bright red. Jacob will learn that his fellow merchants, supervisors and Japanese translators are not always to be trusted, and that things are not always as they appear.
Other important characters in this novel include Ogawa Uzaemon, an honorable young translator who faces a difficult moral dilemma. We meet high-ranking Japanese officials including Magistrate Shiroyama and the malevalent Lord Abbot Enomoto. In fact there is a huge cast of characters, many with their own fascinating backstories. And did I mention a thieving monkey named William Pitt?
This book is wonderful on so many levels. It succeeds as a rousing old-fashioned adventure tale with nail-biting scenes taking place on both land and at sea. It's also an amazing historical where we really are transported back in time and place and learn about Japanese custom and their relationship with the West. And it works as a romance novel, where we find ourselves rooting for both the safety of our protagonists and for their finding happiness and love.
But this is a David Mitchell novel, so we really don't know if that is going to happen, and there is palpable sense of anxiety and dread as we read further and further on in this magnificent story.
Like this author's previous novel, Cloud Atlas, it took me a while to get hooked. In fact, it took me quite a while. There are a lot of names to remember and it can get tough trying to keep everyone all sorted out. But by the second section (the book is divided into 5 parts), I could not put it down. In fact I am writing this review at 3am because I was simply unable to stop reading.
This book really is breathtaking and exceptional, and laugh out loud funny at times to boot. David Mitchell is one of my very favorite authors and I think he's so gifted and he has knocked my socks off, once again. If you find yourself struggling a bit through the first section of the book, don't give up. As with most novels by this author, this book is an ambitious undertaking and requires some work from the reader. But I promise you this turns into an absolute page-turner and at the end you will be rewarded by that wonderful reader's high that can only be experienced by reading the finest kind of novel.
This is quite simply the best historical novel I have read in years, Tolstoyan in its scope and moral perception, yet finely focused on a very particular place and time. The place: Dejima, a Dutch trading post on a man-made island in Nagasaki harbor that was for two centuries Japan's only window on the outside world. The time: a single year, 1799-1800, although here Mitchell takes the liberties of a novelist, compressing the events of a decade, including the decline of the Dutch East India Company and Napoleon's annexation of Holland, into a mere twelve months. He plays smaller tricks with time throughout the novel, actually, alternating between the Japanese calendar and the Gregorian one, then jumping forwards and backwards between chapters. The effect is to heighten the picture of two hermetic worlds removed from the normal course of history. One is Japan itself (the Thousand Autumns of the title), a strictly hierarchical feudal society, deliberately maintaining its isolation and culture. The other is the equally hierarchical society on Dejima itself, comprised of Dutch merchant officers, a polyglot collection of hands, and a few slaves, whose only contact with the outside world is the annual arrival of a ship from Java. To these, Mitchell adds two more hermetic worlds: an isolated mountain monastery in the second part of the book, and an English warship in the third. Without spoilers, I cannot reveal how these connect, but Mitchell's writing will carry you eagerly from one event to the next.
The author has the rare ability to work on three narrative scales simultaneously: small, medium, and large. He immerses the reader in local details -- particulars of language, culture, medical practice, philosophy and prejudice, commercial procedures, gambling, debauchery, and the capsule back-stories of the lesser characters. He will set up nail-biting situations that last a chapter or so, but introduce some twist that suddenly turns everything around at the end. And he arranges the book in three large parts, each of which ends with a transformative moral decision.
There is a large cast of of characters, whose plethora of exotic names can be confusing at first. But these crucial moments are associated with three or four who stand out for their human interest and moral dimension. Part I focuses on Jacob de Zoet (probably based on the real life Hendrik Doeff, who wrote a book about his experiences). He comes to Dejima as a lowly clerk, but he is smarter than the others, more genuinely interested in Japanese language and culture, and an incorruptible man in a nest of swindlers. Although by no means omnipresent, he serves as the commercial, political, and moral touchstone of the entire novel. Part II centers around two Japanese characters. One is the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, Jacob's principal link to the Japanese world; his formal reticence conceals secrets of his own. The other is Orito Aibagawa, a young midwife who already knows more than most doctors. Despite a disfiguring burn on one cheek, she has a beauty that is hard to resist. But her importance to the book is less as a figure of romance than as the center of a moral challenge that tests her (and indirectly Ogawa) to the utmost. Part III introduces the fourth touchstone character, the British naval captain John Penhaligon, whose decisions will prove pivotal as the book approaches its climax.
Those who know David Mitchell from CLOUD ATLAS will be aware of his stylistic virtuosity and his fondness for channeling popular genres ranging from the nineteenth-century adventure story to dystopian futurism. There are traces of many different styles here also, but amazingly they all fit into his account of a single place and time. There are no postmodern tricks; this is Mitchell's most straightforward novel to date. He does have a fondness for writing in short one-paragraph sentences of less than a line long, which makes some of the book look like blank verse, though it reads more like the rapid exchanges of a screenplay. Against this, he can produce set-pieces such as the opening of chapter 39, beginning thus: "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 whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables..." And going on for a page and a half to end "...a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observed the blurred reflection of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. 'This world,' he thinks, 'contains one masterpiece, and that is itself'." And David Mitchell, in HIS masterpiece, gives us an entire world.
The confrontation between east and west, between xenophobic Japan and anyone from the outside world but especially Christian Europe, has generated many histories and history-based fictions. Among the best known is James Clavell's Shogun, and by far the best overall is Shusaku Endo's Silence. I mention these because the opening chapters of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet instantly generate expectations based on those two novels, among others. The arrival of the young Jacob, a devout Christian, at the Dutch trading port of Dejima, adjacent to Nagasaki, is tense and threatening because he attempts to bring in a Psalter; if it is identified by the watchful Japanese officials, his least fate would be expulsion from Japan--but he might be subjected to far worse treatment. This begins Jacob's lengthy immersion in the stew of conflicting social and religious and cultural values that swirl in Dejima. In many ways, his worst conflicts are with his own countrymen, a variety of petty and sometimes grand thieves and swindlers whose frauds Jacob--an accountant who is assigned to bring the financial records of the Dutch East India post up to date and to some standard of honesty--inevitably is forced to reveal, with dire consequences because of the anger and hatred he generates when he undercuts the profitmaking schemes of the officers and employees of the shipping and trading companies.
Jacob de Zoet is an appealing character, and David Mitchell moves his story along vividly and energetically, filling in plenty of episodes and encounters that reveal both the traditional culture of Samurai-dominated Japan and the motives, both positive and venal, of the Europeans trying to break the barriers created by the Shoguns in order to develop the rich trading potential, and preferably to gain exclusive rights for those profits for their own nations' business interests. There is an ongoing romance of sorts, since Jacob is first attracted to and then falls deeply in love with a brilliant young Japanese woman, Orito Aibagawa, who is a medical student in the clinic of the expatriate Dr. Marinus, but who is subsequently kidnapped and confined to a nunnery run by what would now be described as a cult leader, a man devoted to a fairly horrific version of Shinto that involves abuse and murder in the name of a perverse religious dogma. De Zoet's encounters with these disparate characters, and his efforts to maintain his love and loyalty for his fiancé back home in Holland, complicate his life in many ways.
The disappointment of this novel, which may not bother most readers, is that none of the great issues it raises--the religious differences, cultural and moral conflicts, racial and ethnic divisions, even the sexual roles hinted at--is ever explored in depth. The narrative spins along, regularly providing excitement or cringing horror, often prompting laughter at various humorous events, and at many points it seems ready to go deeply into the moral dilemmas faced by many of the characters, most notably Jacob de Zoet, only to skip on by. We could say that it is a virtue of the novel that it allows the reader to make judgments and explore dilemmas, but that is merely an excuse, not an adequate defense against the suspicion that this is another novel written with the hope of a movie contract at the back of its mind. It's not bad--not bad at all. It's entertaining, engrossing, enjoyable. In other words, it is far more in the vein of the James Clavell novel mentioned earlier, than in the tradition of Endo's masterpiece.
on October 13, 2010
Shortly after its publication, "The Economist" dismissed it, suggesting that once again David Mitchell had not fulfilled his promise despite a promising beginning and satisfying ending. But the reviewer failed to describe and qualify the richness of its almost 600 pages arranged into 5 parts and 41 chapters. Were they boring, were they bland? Poor judgment! The swish of the cane and the crack of the whip for this lazy reviewer.
In my humble opinion David Mitchell's tome of 600+ pages is a true masterpiece. It is based on solid research on 17th and 18th century Japan, on the history and final year of the VOC (Dutch East Asia Company), on the state of various sciences (economics, medicine, botany, pharmacology), on the art of diplomacy in Japan, and on the 150-year old history of Deshima (the VOC's trade post island linked to Nagasaki by a tightly-guarded stone bridge, the islet itself infiltrated and controlled by Japan's bureaucracy). It is also a love story, a triangle even between straight-laced Dutch VOC-clerk Jacob de Zoet, Japanese translator (3rd class) Uzaemon Ogawa, who are both about 26 years old and who both fancy the young, facially-disfigured but brilliant midwife Oriko, who aspires to become a surgeon.
The novel's length and contents suits the 18th or 19th century better than the 21st. After all, half of mankind is now constantly checking its mobile phones and other social networks for messages other than the release of a 600+ page novel. This awesome novel is about heavenly and earthly themes, such as fighting for or opposing traditions of science and religion, race and rank, high birth and low origins. Its principal venues are 2 very small, tightly-controlled territories the size of a football field: Deshima and the secretive Buddhist convent of Shiranui, where a strange insemination cult is practiced and to which Oriko is abducted and kept against her will. At times this novel reminds of another masterpiece situated in confined space, Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose".
This well-guarded convent is situated high up in the mountains of a thinly populated district, several days travel from Nagasaki and controlled by the immortal and powerful Enomoto, wearer of many hats. Separately, Jacob and Uzaemon feel terrible about Oriko's fate. When they drop their formal ways of address and other protocols, they conspire to rescue her...
Most of DM's book is situated in 1799 and 1800, but eventually it ends in 1817. It is a rich product of fact and imagination and somehow it contains five or six books in one volume. DM's sheer joy of writing inspires every page. It introduces and follows a dozen or more truly interesting characters, infuses lots of intrigue and plenty of twists and turns for readers who enjoy spending a few weeks with a very inspired and warm piece of writing.
Purely by accident and only a month ago, I read the late Michael Chrichton's 2009 novel "Pirate Latitudes". A comparison between the two books is opportune but beyond the scope of this review.
David Mitchell's novel is highly recommended.
on August 25, 2010
This novel starts off so beautifully, as a densely claustrophic and sensually imagined portrayal of life in the artificial and isolated Dutch trading settlement of Dejima, the only contact that Tokugawa Japan allowed itself with the outside world for over 200 years. The central character of Jacob is a believable everyman newcomer to the post: an upright and moral pastor's son, who soon becomes involved with what he honestly believes is a genuine attempt to root out corruption on Dejima. Of course, corruption is in Dejima's very essence and he soon finds his efforts are not necessarily all for the good. During this time, he meets a facially-scarred young Japanese woman, Aibagawa Orito, whose inner (and outer) beauty immediately affects Jacob, and he struggles inwardly with this desire and the promises he has made to a fiancee back home.
So far, so brilliant. There are passages of superb writing, believable characterisation, and the way in which Mitchell uses different British dialects and slangs to indicate the various Nederlandse regional idioms verges on the masterful. The love story is reserved and possibly even one-sided and imagined - as such things no doubt would have been in any non-commerical context in Japan at the time. There's no doubt David Mitchell is a writer of some class.
However, the book then collapses in an insane manner. There are already minor issues, for example, the young woman in question is a bit too unrealistically brilliant and pioneeringly feminist (in a very western style) to be entirely believable, but these minor criticisms pale into insignificance against the descent into the most ludicrous some-distance-below-James-Clavell-style orientalist pulp fantasy which follows. Jacob's paramour vanishes, and it turns out she has been sold to a sort of Fu Manchuesque villain who has psychic powers, eats babies to stay young and hides away in a remote mountain HQ where he forces unfortunate young women to breed these babies for he and his cohorts' evil rites. She must be rescued and a plucky translator, Uzaemon (himself in love with Orito), assembles a crack-squad of masterless samurai (ronin) to get her back... and so on into the absurdity of a role-playing game write-up, where even the quality of Mitchell's prose can't hide the stupidity of the plot.
Although the book tries to rescue itself with a gloomy coda back in the Netherlands, this fails to erase the gobsmacking ridiculousness of the excursion into the 'Dangerous and Unknown World of Ninjas and Inscrutable Villains!' or whatever Mitchell thinks he was doing. Maybe it was supposed to have a parodic element but it just doesn't work at all and undermines the whole book as a serious piece of writing. It isn't that you couldn't have a very well-written orientalist parody or a even an entirely well-written fantasy novel along these lines, but it's the disjuncture that fails here: in this context and coming after such a fine and well-imagined first half, the 'grand guignol' seems to be a failed attempt to have several cakes and eat them all. As such, it left me feeling rather sick and disappointed.
on June 4, 2010
Based on past experience, I came to this latest by David Mitchell with the very highest expectations. He didn't merely exceed them, he shattered them. I didn't know how I could possibly articulate my enthusiasm for this novel, but yesterday, talking to a friend, it all sort flowed right out of me. This is what I told her:
Set in feudal Japan, this is the tale of Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. To make his fortune and win the hand of his love back in the Netherlands, Jacob has agreed to ply his trade in Asia for a period of five years. As the novel opens, he is new to this very foreign land. He's an innocent abroad in a cut-throat environment of corruption and hidden agendas, intrigue and illicit love. Jacob's tale is utterly absorbing--the time, the place, the history, the characters! It is staggering to think of the research that Mitchell must have done to write this. As long and complex as this novel is, it's not truly epic in scope. The vibrant personalities and clashing cultures are shown in meticulous, detailed focus.
I was fascinated by the way Mitchell populated his novel with a largely deplorable cast of characters, yet one-by-one, as back stories were revealed, so too were these characters' humanity in light of the harshness of their lives. I was completely engrossed, at times--literally--turning the pages breathlessly, I was so caught up in the plot! David Mitchell is that rarest of literary novelists whose magnificent language is married to an amazing story-telling ability. And deep into this novel I thought I understood the story being told. I was so wrong.
Nearly 200 pages in, David Mitchell throws in an absolute game changer. And that first is far from the only one. Mitchell's panorama was so much bigger, broader, and, yes, more lurid than I had thought! The man is a master! Honestly, I have barely touched on the substance of this book. I came to it nearly blind, and my pleasure was far greater for it. I could write essays on the characters he's created, the stories told, the abundant humor within. But for your sake, I will resist.
Reading this novel is an investment. It's not difficult, but there are elements that are challenging. First, it's a toss-up which names are more unpronounceable, the Dutch or the Japanese. I'm going to have to go with the Dutch. Exotic names make keeping track of the cast of thousands that much tougher. Some characters speak in dialect, and one even with a speech impediment! (Thankfully, she isn't too talkative.) On top of that, communication in this time and place was incredibly nuanced and subtle. For most readers, Jacob's world will be alien. So, yes, reading this book is an investment. Do not be deterred! The pay-off is richer than you can imagine. A brief quote:
"Hollows from the fingers of Aibagawa Orito are indented in her ripe gift and he places his own fingers there, holds the fruit under his nostrils, inhales its gritty sweetness, and rolls its rotundity along his cracked lips... Lacking a knife or spoon, he takes a nip of the waxy fruit between his incisors, and tears; juice oozes from the gash; he licks the sweet smears and sucks out a dribbling gobbet of threaded flesh and holds it gently, gently against the roof of his mouth, where the pulp disintegrates into fermented jasmine, oily cinnamon, perfumed melon, melted damson...and in its heart he finds ten or fifteen flat stones, brown as Asian eyes and the same shape."
You owe it to yourself to read this novel, and you owe it to the virtuosic David Mitchell. I am a reader. It is my passion in life. A novel like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a reason to live.
One of the valuable features of a reading group is that it encourages readers to explore works they would not otherwise choose for themselves. This can result in unexpected finds but it can also result in tedious reading. In either case, the chance is worth taking. Our reading group recently chose David Mitchell's novel "The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet" (2010). Although Mitchell has a broad following, I had not earlier read him. In thinking about the book, I found useful many of the Amazon reader reviews which express a wide variety of responses to Mitchell's novel.
Mitchell's book is a lengthy, sprawling historical novel set near Nagasaki, Japan between 1799 and 1811. Most of the action takes place during the first year. The book considers European efforts to open up Japan for trade. Most of the book involves the activities of the Dutch. The late sections of the story show the rivalry between the Dutch and the British. Japan at the time was an isolated, by choice, feudally organized culture that wanted to severely limit European trade because, among other reasons, it strongly opposed earlier efforts by missionaries to convert the Japanese to Christianity. The Europeans were interested in markets and economic domination.
The main character in the novel is the young Jacob de Zoet. He is a bookkeeper who travels with the Dutch East Indies Company to Japan in the hopes of earning enough money to win the hand of Anna, the woman he loves. Jacob is a devout Christian. He smuggles a family psalter into Japan at great risk to himself. As the story progresses, Jacob falls in love and proposes to a beautiful, intelligent Japanese woman, Orito, a midwife studying European medicine, whose face is severely burned. Besides the historical theme and the love theme, the book explores the character of de Zoet, among other people, and how he develops during his stay in Japan. Jacob's mission was to examine the books of the trading company and to root out corruption and fraud. He has a strong sense of honesty in the middle of a corrupt trading partnership between the Dutch and the Japanese together with intellectual curiosity and a wish to better himself.
An extraordinary number of characters and types people this novel, and the story is told from a number of perspectives and voices. The tone shifts throughout. The book raises several issues involving personal moral decision. At three critical places, de Zoet, Orito, and the British frigate captain, Penhaglion, are presented with significant ethical choices and engage in a combination of reflection, moving forward and backtracking. With its large cast and meandering storytelling, the book also explores Dutch social structure, including its servants and slaves, Japanese society, Dutch-British relations, and the rise of Napoleonic Europe. A substantial portion of the novel is set in a wicked Japanese monastery and nunnery. Activities at the monastery are outside the pale of any ethical standards, both those of the Japanese and those of the Europeans. I would have liked a consideration of the nature and purpose of Japanese monasticism, rather than only its corruption.
The book displays a collage of themes and a collage of action. Much of the book has the quality of a yarn more than a historical novel or a character study. It includes graphic portrayals of medical operations, beheadings, tortures, long, carefully planned intrigues, narrow escapes from disaster, poisonings, and much else.
Some of the scenes in this book work well. De Zoet's character is developed as is that of his friend, the scholarly Dr. Marinus. I was pleased to see Marinus play Scarlatti on the harpsichord. The scenes of life on the British frigate, Phaeton, and of its captain are among the best in the book. They reminded me of the wonderful novels of Patrick O'Brien dealing with this time period.
On the whole, I was markedly dissatisfied with this book. It is written with a panoramic sweep that is overly broad and not sustained. I thought the book might have benefitted from more modest ambitions. The treatment of Japanese culture, and the Japanese attitude towards the Europeans remains at a basic level. I would have welcomed a more thoughtful, focused treatment. Although the book includes some good, clear writing, it suffers from its form, from verbosity, overwritng, and straining for effect. Some of the long passages, such as the opening of chapter 39, that have attracted admiration seem to me strained and theatrical. The book pulls in to many directions at once and dissipates whatever strength its themes might have. The writing is slow and difficult. I did not find the content of this novel justified the serious effort required to work through it.
I would have welcomed a serious treatment of Japan, its culture, and its early relationship with Europeans. I did not find such a treatment in this book. What there might be is buried among a welter of other material. It was valuable, as suggested at the outset of this review, to make the effort required to read this novel as part of a book group to share thoughts and as part of a community of Amazon readers. It is also important to me try to explain the reasons for disliking a book that has been praised by other good readers. In spite of some valuable aspects, this book left me seriously disappointed.
on May 20, 2012
David Mitchell is a master of painting a written picture. I could see Dejima, the characters, Nagasaki and the various shoguns and seamen. The book made me want to do further research into the subject which I did and found the author to be historically accurate. I did not want it to end. Needless to say I just downloaded "Cloud Atlas".
on October 16, 2010
I liked this book. I didn't love it. The dialogue is maddeningly complicated and hard to follow. He uses the characters first and last names interchangeably; doubling the time it takes to know who is who. His portrayal of Japanese speaking Dutch (well English I guess ha ha) is completely wrong which causes needless distraction. Japanese people DO NOT drop every pronoun or subject when speaking a foreign language. They do not use pidgin English as was common elsewhere in Asia. It's a surprising mistake given the author's otherwise superb research. This tends to make the japanese look worse than they should and distorts the relationship with the Dutch or foreigners generally.
The story is a good, taut tale of the Dutch trading post outside Nagasaki in 1800. The characters are real. There are legitimate portraits of the those that were likely there and the conflicts that would arise as men try to personally profit, explore Japan or fall in love. I doublechecked using Google and Mitchell has incorporated real events and described the trading post very accurately. The hoped for romance of the leading character is plausible given how there would be some but limited interaction between the Dutch and the Japanese. There are some excellent references to the Japanese efforts to expunge Christianity and the brutal oppression of Christians by the Shogunate that was far worse than and longer than anywhere else in the world.
I liked that he gave voice to the slaves that were brutally exploited by the trading companies. The Dr. Marinus character is used brilliantly to introduce modern medicine in Japan in sometimes stomach churning detail.
It would be higher rated if it were easier to follow at the beginning and if the dialogue with the Japanese was more accurate.
on April 30, 2012
Recommended to me by a friend when I asked for something lush, historical, and long, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" really delivered. Language and character development are both heaped with attention, and the book's characters inhabit their words and actions perfectly. At times, perhaps there was a little more attention heaped on the plot than was needed. Orito's storyline is cast off abruptly and ultimately resolved too easily. The same fate befalls the crew of the Pheobus. Too many shoots and not enough strategic pruning. And of course there are those passages, of which Jacob and Marinus' recitation of the Psalms during the bombardment is a great example, where Mitchell is applying cinematic storytelling conventions that are frankly a pain in the ass to read through.
I've not read Mitchell's other recent works, but I gather from professional and Amazon reviewers that he is slumming it a bit with this novel. If this is Mitchell slumming it, I'm excited to read him at his best. And my criticism aside, this really is a thoroughly satisfying read.