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Customer Review

151 of 163 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A History of Isolation, May 6, 2010
This review is from: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, A Novel (Hardcover)
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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.
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Showing 1-10 of 16 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 6, 2010 11:33:24 AM PDT
Roger, since it will be a good month before I read this book, I wanted to get a foretaste of what I had in store. I literally sucked in my breath when I read your first sentence. This sounds absolutely extraordinary, but then, David Mitchell has always offered up stylistic virtuosity; he may be one of the most talented writers out there today. Can't wait to eventually join the discussion.
Jill

Posted on May 6, 2010 6:13:50 PM PDT
Roger, brilliant indeed!
What a great and perceptive review without giving much away. This novel has evidently touched you deeply, both in its language and it its story. I am fascinated and intrigued what you say about the "three narrative scales..." I might read CLOUD ATLAS to start with to prepare myself for his language... given I have to wait more than 6 weeks to get it. Friederike

Posted on May 6, 2010 8:02:19 PM PDT
Roger--

What a dynamite review--it sizzles. I expected no less from you. And your passion for this masterpiece is so evident--YAY! And,ah--you articulated my missing piece (of many!)--that transformative moral decision at the end of each section. That one with the sea captain took my breath away.

Friederike--no, start with this one! You won't be disappointed. Jill, you will be moved and fastened.

Bug

In reply to an earlier post on May 6, 2010 8:48:53 PM PDT
Thank you, all three! Friederike, I do agree with Bug, though. CLOUD ATLAS is a very different kettle of fish from this, in that style and technique is almost the whole point. I think you will be so captivated by the many historical details of the story here that the style will almost be incidental. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on May 7, 2010 2:24:25 AM PDT
OK, thanks - I'll wait, impatiently, then... I have a "few" other books waiting to be read... F.

Posted on May 17, 2010 11:21:33 PM PDT
I enjoyed 'Cloud Atlas' and I am fascinated by this particular period of history. Your review has me adding this book to my reading list. Thank you for such an enlightening, and intriguing, review.

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2010 6:44:58 AM PDT
Jennifer, Thank you. Apart from his apparently inexhaustible grasp of diverse styles, this might almost be by a different author to CLOUD ATLAS; it is so much more centered. Roger.

Posted on May 21, 2010 10:06:54 AM PDT
Roger-
Our paths seem to cross again. I just finished the book also, and will be posting my 4-star review of it anon, but I wanted to make sure I read your review of it first.
Don't disagree with a word you say - it is another excellent review, and as one commenter said: a good balance of critique and not giving the story away. And there really is so much about the book that is enjoyable, including throwing some light on an aspect of history I did not know very much about. But I did have reservations about the plausibility of some aspects of the work.
Of course with your qualifier... it does depend on the other historical novels that you have read in recent years. Let me throw out four that might be better, for your consideration. Two I've read in the last year, one compliments of the Vine Program: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, and, The Radetzky March (Works of Joseph Roth). The other two I read about 40 years ago:Quiet Flows the Don and The Age of Reason: A Novel
Thanks for your thoughts.

- JPJ

In reply to an earlier post on May 21, 2010 11:49:16 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 30, 2010 3:12:40 AM PDT
John--
Mitchell writes with a fable-like approach. Also, he "re-wrote" the history that his novel is in (which goes along with his fable-like approach) and also played with Time (I use a capital purposely). Whereas, Marlantes I believe, tries to be true to Time. I don't think Mitchell was trying to re-enact this moment in history. He took this period, and these countries, and even Jacob from another characte, folded it up and unfolded it Mitchell-esque.

My understanding is that Marlantes is not even working to accomplish what Mitchell worked to accomplish. Mitchell plays with linguistics much more, and his themes are not the same. I don't think this book is meant to be touted as, "If you want to read about The Dutch East India Company's Waterloo, read this book." Whereas Marlantes is definitely writing to attempt realism for the soldier experience in Vietnam.

SBug

In reply to an earlier post on May 21, 2010 11:53:58 AM PDT
JPJ, I look forward to your own review and to discovering the reason for that missing star. I have read none of the four books you mention. I started the Roth, but must have been in the wrong mood. The Sartre is new to me, though I know several of his plays (have performed in one, actually). I looked at MATTERHORN on Vine, and decided not to go for it, but I'll look now at what you have to say about it.

If I were to suggest challengers to my own superlative, I would go first to the latter two books in JG Farrell's "Empire Trilogy": THE SIEGE OF KRISHNAPUR and THE SINGAPORE GRIP. DO you know those? Roger.
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