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.