Go Dutch

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell (Random House, 2010)

In his previous books, David Mitchell established his astounding virtuosity as a storyteller, weaving together numerous genres and storylines into the fabric of a single book. This time out he works mostly within the historical fiction framework and proves again that he is among the best novelists writing today. (He’s been a finalist twice for the Man Booker Prize, and Thousand Autumns is on the recently announced longlist for this year’s award.)

To attempt to summarize in a few words a book of such commanding versatility is a fool’s errand. But I have to give you some idea of what to expect. In briefest outline, and without giving away too much, the book is set in Japan just over 200 years ago, during the waning years of the Dutch East Indies Company. Young Jacob de Zoet arrives at the Dutch trading post, an artificial island off Nagasaki called Dejima, for a five-year stint as a clerk – a test of his worthiness set by the father of the girl he wishes to marry back home. This work begins in earnest as he must correct the corrupt accounts of the previous station chief who is dispatched just as Jacob arrives. Through a chance encounter, he is smitten with the somewhat liberated midwife Orito Abigawa, who is, of course, unobtainable for a westerner like Jacob. As her family falls deeper into debt, Orito is pulled from her studies at the behest of powerful Abbot Enomoto and is conscripted into a “nunnery” that engages in secret and sinister ritual practices. Jacob and Uzaemon, his friend and competitor for Orito’s affection, strive to rescue her from her mountaintop shrine. There’s much more, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

A brief plot summary like the one above can only take you so far. It cannot begin to convey the fully-formed characters and their complex interactions; the powerfully evoked settings on both land and sea; the multiple subplots and nuanced storylines; and the book’s underlying concern with the corrupting nature of power and money. Mitchell also explores the tensions between eastern and western culture in such areas as trade (or isolationism), science, medicine, politics, religion, and enlightenment values.

More extensive reviews can be found in The Guardian, The Times, The Washington Post, and BookForum. And The New York Times offers an excerpt from the book.

If you’ve already read Thousand Autumns and are looking for a similar reading experience, you might consider: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding; Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan; or São Tome by Paul Cohn.