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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel Paperback – March 8, 2011
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“An achingly romantic story of forbidden love . . . Mitchell’s incredible prose is on stunning display. . . . A novel of ideas, of longing, of good and evil and those who fall somewhere in between [that] confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive.”—Dave Eggers, The New York Times Book Review
“The novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale . . . an epic of sacrificial love, clashing civilizations and enemies who won’t rest until whole family lines have been snuffed out.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“By any standards, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a formidable marvel.”—James Wood, The New Yorker
“A beautiful novel, full of life and authenticity, atmosphere and characters that breathe.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR
About the Author
- Publisher : Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (March 8, 2011)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 492 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0812976363
- ISBN-13 : 978-0812976366
- Item Weight : 13.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 1.14 x 8.16 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #71,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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I could hardly put this novel down. I wanted the pleasure of reading it never to stop. I kept backtracking, rereading passages and whole chapters just for the delight of the language. I laughed out loud, and I cried. It is a very complicated story, populated by assorted con artists, ugly Dutch trading company exploiters of whatever they can find to exploit, whose racial attitudes are those of the 1700s. And the Japanese are no better, except that is it their country they are trying to protect from being overtaken by outsiders. Japanese society was extremely rigid, with horrible tortures and punishments for all kinds of apparently slight infractions. But then the Dutch at that time were brutal in their quest to grab chunks of "empire" away from England and Spain. Japan was one of the few places where the people being exploited for trade managed to contain the foreign invaders, and made the trading company follow their rules. (While in the same time period, England and Spain were imposing their systems of law, religion, and culture on their subjugated colonies, with not much care for what the locals thought or wanted.)
So in this time and place a young Dutch clerk, nephew of a protestant minister, has signed on with the Dutch Trading Company V.O.C. to make his fortune with a five year contract and return to Holland with enough money to win the heart of his future father-in-law, and be married to the girl he adores. We meet all the characters he has to live, work, and get along with, Dutch and Japanese, some earnest and fair, some merely greedy bastards, and some pure evil. He has to learn the language, keep his balance on the Company's tightrope while juggling the spoken and unspoken rules of both the the Company's and the Japanese officials' games.
This group of outsiders is contained on a small trading island of warehouses, offices, and rooming houses for the officials of the Company, with only the Company men and their slaves and servants (and local bar girls) for social interaction. They are restricted from entering Japan proper. Their interactions with the Japanese are limited to formal business, translations, accounts, stock inventories, negotiating contracts for sales of various commodities, and trials and punishments for those caught breaking the many strict and arbitrary Japanese laws. This is no kind of a "junket," nor is it a particularly posh posting. Exotic yes, but most of young Jacob's co-workers lack the imagination to appreciate their environment as anything other than something to be endured, with the dream of wealth at the end of their term. Jacob does appreciate his surroundings, applies himself to learning Japanese, treats people fairly and with respect, but he gets in trouble because he is honest, and refuses to wink at his superior's fraudulent schemes to enrich themselves.
The ending is not at all what I expected. I do not want to give anything away. It is both happier and sadder than I thought it might be. But it is a realistic and very satisfying end to a remarkable story. I have some Dutch ancestors, who in the 17th century went west, and ultimately ended up in one of England's colonies in North America. This book helps me imagine what their lives might have been, had they decided to sign on to a Dutch East Asia Company contract instead.
Now that that's taken care of, I can try to discuss this rationally. This is another book that I would never have picked up on my own, but read thanks to the book club that meets every month and a half or so at my office.
I found the title puzzling until, about 3/4 of the way through the text, it is casually mentioned that one of Japan's names for itself is (or at least, was two hundred years ago) "The Land of a Thousand Autumns." So the title metynomizes to "The Japan of Jacob de Zoet." Which makes for a reasonably apt title.
The main character - though he hardly appears in the book's second part - is a clerk in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, and as the book opens, he arrives at Dejima, an artificial island off the shore of Nagasaki, the only place in Japan where Europeans were (officially) permitted for about two hundred years. He arrives with a new "Chief Resident," whose immediately announces that he is going to clean up the fraudulent books kept by his predecessor. Which predecessor, incidentally, he ships out in chains.
Cleaning up the books is the job of Clerk de Zoet, who goes about his work faithfully and enthusiastically - perhaps even with a bit of ambition. He meets the other Dutch inhabitants of Dejima, who are a fascinating cast of characters, and makes friends and enemies among them.
Along the way he meets a young Japanese woman named Orito Aibagawa, daughter of a samurai family, and falls in love (despite his engagement to a Dutch woman back home).
But this is not <b>Shogun</b>, and the two do not fall into bed together. Orito is spirited away as a nun in a mysterious abbey, whose Abbot Enomoto is a very powerful figure in Nagasaki, setting up part two and ending my summarizing of the book.
Mitchell's writing is spectacular without being flashy, if that makes sense. He draws the reader into the hearts of his various viewpoint characters effortlessly (I mean effortless for the reader; I am sure a great deal of effort went into creating these characters). They are distinct and distinctive, and I liked a lot of them a great deal more than I usually like characters in a historical novel.
So anyway: <rave>recommended</rave>.
Top reviews from other countries
It's also a horror story, with the monstrous Abbot Enomoto looming like Conrad's Kurtz over the destinies of all that we will meet. This part of the novel also links - strongly - to The Bone Clocks, Mitchell's next novel, so if you have read that and ignored this - don't. All of Mitchell's novels are loosely linked by characters, but The Bone Clocks also adds a level to the supernatural elements of this story, which I had originally read as an unbalanced religious cult.
So a historical novel, a horror story - but of course, also a love story as Jacob crosses paths with Orito, a Japanese nurse of the Dutch Doctor Marinus. To say much more on this would ruin the twists, but it is through Orito we discover the true depths of Emoto's depravity. David Mitchell writes superb books, but this still stands as his best for me.
The ending of the book is beautifully written and heartbreakingly poignant.