Shelves: snoot , japan This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. If one measure of a novel is its ability to simultaneously inspire and confound engagement, then Mitchell has once again turned it up to We are tantalized with recurrent themes, unexplained symbols, ties between distant story lines indeed, between entire novels! The reviews that have helped bring some coherence to my thoughts, though, are those by the Irish Times and the Times of London , both of which point out the importance of bridging divides between people, cultures, worlds. Dejima is a bridge between Europe and Japan.
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Share via Email Does it matter what books a novelist has written before? In a typical manoeuvre, an incidental character from his first book, Ghostwritten , would become a major one in his third, Cloud Atlas His fourth novel, Black Swan Green , though more conventionally autobiographical than either, was littered with recurrences from, and clues to, both — as if worlds, both real and fictional, were endlessly intersecting.
There was artistic continuity in this, but also the hint of an in-joke. Now, however, with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he has moved on, jettisoned the cross-referencing, and severed the overt links to his previous books.
It is interesting but unnecessary to know that the author has lived in Japan, is the father of half-Japanese children, and has set an earlier novel — number9dream — in the country.
Equally, the fact that this new novel centres on a love story between a European man and a Japanese woman represents no more than the most elementary draw from autobiography.
Beyond that, it is a self-standing historical novel, written in chronological order in the present tense, which conjures up a profoundly researched and fully realised world. It takes place at the turn of the 18th century, in Edo-era Japan.
Theirs is the most significant contact Japan has had with the outside world since Portuguese missionaries were expelled by the Tokugawa shogunate, and Christianity eradicated. Dutch trade on the island is now the one opening Japan has to the outside world — a tiny valve for the exchange of goods and ideas. Jacob de Zoet is an uptight young Dutch book-keeper, charged with cleaning up the accounts of an operation riddled with corruption as Dutch power fades and English naval power looms. Possessing no navy of its own, Japan is both fanatically insular and increasingly vulnerable.
Encountering a beautiful but scarred Japanese midwife who has been granted some limited contact with European medicine, Jacob finds himself in thrall to a love forbidden by tradition, culture, politics and law. A rescue attempt, in the form of a samurai raid on the shrine, briefly makes you suspect the novel is going to turn on a thriller plot but, thrilling as this episode actually is, it rather turns on the murk of politics and the complex allegiances of a feudal society. Miss Aibagawa is no cipher of the mysterious "other": her own medical gifts prove more useful to her than her would-be rescuers and, as a character, she is at least as fully realised as de Zoet.
With Enlightenment ideas and European corruption washing up to the Japanese coastline, Mitchell creates, in Dejima, a single, dramatic gateway through which to observe the encounter between civilisations from both sides. There is no retreat, here, into the conventions of historical fiction. As translators from Nagasaki attempt to deal with concepts rendered in Dutch, and vice versa, Mitchell renders communications and miscommunications in brilliantly supple and adaptive English.
In the Dutch world you feel the Dutch-ness; in the Japanese world, you feel events taking place from within the consciousness of the Japanese characters. And when the English arrive, it takes a moment to realise that you are experiencing them as the aliens in the diplomatic triangle. I doubt there is another living English writer who is capable of such traversals of worlds and consciousness. A criticism sometimes fired at Mitchell is that, beneath the virtuosity, he lacks an authentic voice of his own.
There may be something in that, but it misses the real potential of his ventriloquism. Here, in this recreation of a historical moment, his transmigrations of empathy become fully emotionally satisfying. Ironically for an experimental writer, it is this seemingly simple step into a third-person, chronological narrative that feels like his greatest imaginative leap.
This is the novel that establishes his maturity. Which is not to say that it is faultless. So thoroughly does Mitchell saturate his world with the detail of his knowledge of it, that — particularly in the opening quarter — the labour of the writing can at times become a labour of reading.
There are periods of stasis amid the brilliance, followed by sudden bounds of narrative momentum, which leave a feeling of unevenness. Descriptions of Nagasaki of the period are, at one point, lyrical to the point of — literally — rhyming. To feel the pleasure of this poetry, you have to extract it from its function and rhythm as prose. It is a very rare example in the book of virtuosity serving no other function than itself.
But Mitchell, aged 41 , has shown himself capable of sloughing off his earlier personas, digging deeper, going further, and staying new. This may not, quite, be a masterpiece, but it is unquestionably a marvel — entirely original among contemporary British novels, revealing its author as, surely, the most impressive fictional mind of his generation.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
By Dave Eggers July 1, If any readers have doubted that David Mitchell is phenomenally talented and capable of vaulting wonders on the page, they have been heretofore silent. Mitchell is almost universally acknowledged as the real deal. This new book is a straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale — all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa Image Credit Because Edo-era Japan is closed to all foreigners, and no Japanese national is allowed to leave the island, this port is actually a detached and floating city, anchored off the mainland near Nagasaki. De Zoet is there to make a name for himself in the company, save some money and go back to Holland within a few years, in time to marry his beloved Anna, for whom he pines often and deeply.
Empire of Desire
Jacob de Zoet, seeking to advance himself and marry his beloved, Anna, travels to Japan with the Dutch East India Company to work at the trading town on a man-made island, Dejima, in Nagasaki Harbor. Jacob is a devoted Christian, and prays daily using his family Psalter. He is abhorred by the corruption of the island, the black market trade, and the ill-practices of the Europeans around him. Jacob nevertheless befriends a Dutch physician, Dr.