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52 Books #14: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

April 14, 2011

 

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre) is David Mitchell’s fifth book. Like his last, Black Swan Green, this latest novel somewhat eschews the multiple linked narratives and geometric structuring of his earlier books, cleaving instead to unities of place and time and a more or less linear plot. And while in previous books Mitchell has incorporated fantasy, science fiction and so-called ‘genre’ elements into (also so-called) literary novels, Jacob de Zoet is largely a straight historical novel, albeit with a tiny bit of apparently magical ability given to one of the characters. It’s set on late eighteenth-century Dejima, a tiny, artificial ‘factory island’ in the bay of Nagasaki, and the only trading post between ultra-insular Japan and the outside world at that time. The novel gains its title, as a character helpfully tells us, from one meaning of the name Dejima: ‘Land of a Thousand Autumns’.
Jacob de Zoet, a pastor’s son from Zeeland (Holland to you and me)  starts life on Dejima as a lowly clerk, one of scarcely a dozen Europeans allowed into Japan, and ends up the protector of Dutch and Japanese interests on the island, after a British ship arrives in Nagasaki Bay on a mission to get a toehold in Japan. At times he seems a familiar, if not generic, figure – not least because in his flaming red hair and his love for a seemingly unattainable woman in a country not his own, he recalls that other fish out of water, Oscar Hopkins in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. Although Jacob is central to the novel, however, he’s also an entry point for Mitchell to explore this isolated, alien-seeming world, through Dejima’s visitors, inhabitants, officials, and prisoners.

Most of these are well-characterised, though this is a novel with a large cast (Mitchell or his publishers felt it necessary to include a list of dramatis personae, but oddly placed it at the end of the book) and some characters, especially in the first 200-page section, are reduced to a trait (an officer who belches loudly) or tic (an Irishman whose every utterance contains ‘feck’). The remainder of the book, which is told from the perspectives of several of the characters we meet in the first, Jacob-highlighting, section goes some  way to remedying this, and translator Ogawa, the villainous Lord Enomoto, and Orito, the midwife with whom Jacob has fallen in love, are given more substance.

It’s a relief to find Orito, in particular, is more than just the cypher of the exotic woman she first appears, and that the facial burn which is her sole distinguishing characteristic at first – in spite of the hair-raising prologue in which she shows her midwife’s credentials by helping, in squirm-inducing detail, to deliver a baby – does have some bearing on the plot. It’s a device after all, but a useful one in two instances: one makes it clear to the thief who ransacks Jacob’s rooms and steals only a page of drawings who it is Jacob’s been obsessively drawing; the other is in the justification for Orito’s fate, which sees her kidnapped and banished, in Part Two, to a remote fortress inhabited only by disfigured women, where her skills of midwifery are to be put to use in a nightmarish parody of a nunnery.

Much of Part Two is given over to incident rather than character. Orito investigates her de facto prison (run by chief baddie Enomoto), discovers the truth to how it operates, and decides to escape. At the same time, a raiding party organised by translator Ogawa sets off to try and rescue her, his motivation for this mission utterly logical but also, I felt, somewhat convenient. We are in a familiar territory of spies, variously trustworthy allies, and tiny rebel forces battling a powerful and remote foe: all a bit derring-do, but very enjoyable derring-do. Mitchell is good on action sequences and secret passages, and there is more than a touch of the ‘sensation novel’ both in the revelations about Orito’s new home, and in her ploys to escape it. There’s one especially striking sequence, in tunnels deep beneath the ‘nunnery’, where she moves from room to room, discovering progressively more decrepit and vile icons, as the truth about Enomoto’s plans is being revealed.

I can’t move on from character, and the convenience of characters falling in love, without mention of de Zoet’s fiancee Anna, whom he left behind in Zeeland: Orito’s initial sketchiness is nothing compared to Anna, who is scarcely evoked other than by occasional references to her name, which may as well be McGuffin – as Jacob guiltily reminds himself he can’t go getting engaged to Orito while Anna awaits his return – and in a vision he has of his fiancee staring glumly out a rain-streaked window. If Jacob’s devout and secretive Christianity weren’t a plot point, one might suspect this vision had been inspired by some of his cheesier bedtime reading.

Fortunately, Jacob’s dilemma is resolved without much exertion on his part. I don’t feel that Mitchell’s strengths lie in exploring interior emotional states and psychologies, and several characters have their plotlines solved by circumstance, rather than arriving at epiphanies or resolving them internally. That’s not a huge fault in a book like Jacob de Zoet, which has enough going on in its mix of adventure story and well-researched historical novel, without having to have great emotional clout too. The problem is that Mitchell tries to exert this very clout sometimes, notably in the last pages of the book (which he has chosen to title, with an uncharacteristic smirk, ‘The Last Pages’), where we see a projected future for Jacob after the events of the book. This seems to be reaching for the kind of stirring montage we see in would-be tearjerker movies – as an incurable nerd, I was reminded of a similar prolepsis in Doctor Who’s ‘Human Nature/The Family of Blood’ – but fell far short of making me feel sad or happy for Jacob and his family. Perhaps I’m too used to TV and without a soundtrack of swirling strings couldn’t believe in this as profound and bittersweet stuff.

The research is one of Jacob de Zoet’s great strengths, with everyday life in the utterly strange Dejima brought vividly to life. Mitchell describes some of his research process in an illuminating and entertaining essay-as-afterword, and I wouldn’t have minded reading far more about the synchronicities and serendipities of this kind of research, where discovering a random fact can pull together disparate skeins of ideas, or else upset a carefully constructed bit of writing when you find that it’s founded on hearsay rather than fact.

Research does stand in for some of the novel’s weaknesses, however. Never an overt stylist – previous novels’ generally skilful pastiches of other genres mean that this and Black Swan Green are the first two novels in which Mitchell’s own writing style is discernible throughout – he has here elected to utilise some irritating stylistic habits throughout. Rather than great long descriptive passages, individual single-line-paragraph descriptions punctuate exchanges of dialogue, often straining for the poetical: the first example, three lines into the opening page, sets the tone: ‘In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates.’ We’re in the territory of Poetical Metaphor – capital letters necessary – throughout Jacob de Zoet, which becomes wearing. Likewise, I came away from reading his five hundred pages with an inaccurate but distinct sense that every line of dialogue in the book is broken up in this way. Here are four (non-contiguous!) examples from, randomly-picked, page 88:

‘Deal he does, Your Grace,’ Grote smiles like a shark, ‘he surely does.’

‘Like I say,’ Grote smiles like a saint, ‘“a most exalted personage”.’

‘Then,’ Jacob has no more objections, ‘yes, Your Grace, the deal is agreed.’

‘Then the Lord Abbott,’ Jacob remains defiant, ‘know my mind better than I.’

Now: it’s my understanding, from style guides and teaching, that one shouldn’t ‘soft-break’ a line of dialogue with commas, as in the above example, unless there’s a ‘vocal verb’ in the prose thus isolated: so you can have a ‘he said’, a ‘she sighed’ or even a ‘the Priest exploded’ (er, unless it’s a literal explosion), but not a verb of action or change of state, of the ‘Jacob buttons his coat’, ‘Ogawa suddenly remembers he’s left the iron on’, or ‘Orito kicks a passing cat’ variety – you need en-dashes, a ‘hard break’ for that. (And Grote’s ‘smiling’ isn’t permitted either under this rubric, strictly speaking, since a smile doesn’t make a sound.) Not that Mitchell doesn’t use the dashes too: this is a conversation-heavy book, and with pretty much every other line of dialogue interrupted this, they become stilted conversations, where one reads even the most banal lines – interrupted between clauses – as significant or portentous Statements. Effects are effects, in any case, and whether or not I like Mitchell’s techniques of the elaborately interrupted dialogue line and the punctuating descriptive, he overuses them mercilessly: he’s never been a writer with much time for ‘less is more’, and that leads to problems here, in a book which would flow more easily without these stylistic obstacles scattered all over the place – better, that is, if Mitchell weren’t trying quite so hard to impress.

This is a shame because, for my money, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is actually David Mitchell’s most purely enjoyable book since his debut Ghostwritten, back in 1999. It’s no insult to say I treated it as a (very superior) beach read – albeit up a mountain – of the sort one simultaneously wants to guzzle in a few long sittings, and to prolong as long as possible its many pleasures.

Other reading in Week #14:

Mary McCarthy The Group (Virago)

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