The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
As I’ve mentioned before (in great detail), I loathe the term “literary fiction”—semantically, it’s meaningless, and I’ve never seen it used in a way that didn’t denigrate “genre fiction” as unworthy of study or love. (Or both, in my case, since the two practices generally conflate for me.) However, what it’s supposed to denote—fiction focused on the internal lives of its characters more so than their external lives—is particularly useful when stepping back from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. There’s plenty of movement and action, but its true interest is in the emotional lives of its characters.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet opens in 1799, as the young Dutchman Jacob de Zoet lands in Dejima, the island in Nagasaki Harbor that serves as Japan’s only trading post with the Western world it is eager to protect itself from. The devout Jacob soon finds himself an ill fit for the corrupt business of the Dutch East Indies Company, and his position is complicated further by his infatuation with Orito Aibagawa, a disfigured and promising midwife who studies medicine with their mutual acquaintance Dr. Marinus. As de Zoet tries to negotiate his awkward position in Japan, the politics he understands so little of will take control of his life…
I’ve never read David Mitchell before, but I was drawn to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by his appearance on Fresh Air. The way he talked about his book and especially about the importance of stories to humans immediately spoke to me. If you’ve heard me talk about how stories are the way humans make sense of their world, Mitchell is the one who articulated that feeling to me. And that’s what Mitchell does best here—articulating, in a succinct and almost invisible fashion, emotions. de Zoet, who is working in Japan in order to ultimately provide for his fiancée back in Holland, falls painfully in love with Orito, and Mitchell illuminates it in small, real moments that speak volumes. “A wisp of black hair is escaped from her headscarf: Jacob wants it” (68). This marvelous power is not limited to the love story, such as it is, but extends to the entire novel, especially Jacob himself.
I’m fascinated by characters with extremely strong ethics and principles, and Jacob’s devotion certainly counts. It’s not his most tolerant trait—at one point, Jacob pities a Japanese “heathen”, since Jacob believes in the true faith—but it does make him an interesting character, especially in the corrupt world of Japanese-Dutch business. The more time he spends in Dejima, the closer Jacob becomes to Dr. Marinus, an ornery and agnostic intellectual. Their good-natured exchanges about the world around them leads to my favorite passage, where Dr. Marinus asserts that “the soul is a verb” (146). Even in the face of death and destruction, Jacob is steadfast. This, of course, does not mean that he doesn’t develop. He struggles with his attraction to Orito (considering his status) and his dawning awareness of the corruption of the company, and comes through the smoke a better man, although the ending is absolutely haunting.
But I truly appreciated that this novel, while about a European man in Japan, is not solely about him. Orito gets her own say in a section about her life after she’s forced to leave Dejima, and Mitchell, from there, glides easily from character to character to show and develop the world around him, from the magistrate to the slaves. It isn’t distracting, as I feared it might be, and I loved seeing these different life experiences depicted by Mitchell’s careful brush. There’s a world beyond Jacob, and a world that he may never be able to understand fully, although he tries. (There’s a motif concerning language and the error of translation, especially when Jacob and Orito talk.) The ending, I think, is one worth reading the book for, as Jacob reflects on his life and realizes just how much Japan inhabits his internal landscape and how little he has inhabited Japan.
Bottom line: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is written articulately and illuminatingly—while the story might seem to be that of a Dutchman in Japan, its real focus is the emotional lives of those in 1800 Dejima. Worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.