Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
“Creation unfolds, around us, despite us and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we like to call it “love” – Jacob de Zoet
The cover of the mass market paperback edition of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet uses the 116th print of Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e paintings titled 100 Famous Views of Edo for its cover. Ukiyo-e literally translates to “floating world” in English since the prints often depicts a scene that is separate from the temporal and dull intricacies of the present. And, at the same time, it also represents the beauty that is fleeting, impermanent, and prone to corruption which serves as a reminder that what we see in the ukiyo-e will not remain forever.
In a sense, the 116th ukiyo-e of Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo is an appropriate cover for the The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet since it can represent the beauty and splendor of Japan and, at the same time, reminds us that such a beauty is always prone to corruption for what thing in the world is immune to such. And, if you were to put the 116th ukiyo-e into words, maybe the best way is to lift words from the book itself which is the product of the ruminations of the Magistrate Shiroyama:
“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; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed form kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candle-makers, rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottle-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers; lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses; heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses; prisoners haunted by happier lives and ageing rakes by other men’s wives; skeletal tutors goaded to fits; firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits; tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year-old whores; the once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores; statues of Jizo anointed with posies; syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses; potters; barbers; hawkers of oil; tanners; cutlers; carters of night-soil; gate-keepers; bee-keepers; blacksmiths and drapers; torturers; wet-nurses; perjurers; cut-purses; the newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant; the ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant; over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.”
The novel takes place in Edo-era Japan, at the turn of the 18th century, during which Japan still follows a strictly isolationist foreign policy and only trades with the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) or the Dutch East India Company. The VOC resides in the artificial island of Dejima, just off the coast of Nagasaki, where the company houses its employees and tradable goods. The island of Dejima, then, becomes the sole gateway of Japan to the world and vice-versa.
Our protagonist comes in the form of the red-haired Jacob de Zoet, a clerk who possesses a somber demeanor, who came to the Orient in order to amass a fortune in order to be worthy of the girl that she loves back home. Jacob is charged with discovering the corruption of the previous Chief Resident of Dejima which, along with his refusal to become corrupt himself, gains him enemies in a place where he has very little in the terms of friendships. To complicate the matter, she falls in love with a Japanese woman, a thing that is forbidden in Japan. Jacob’s story narrates his rise as a favorite of the current Head Resident; his fall from grace; and then his rise again as he is voted the President of the Provisional Dejima Republic during the bankruptcy of the VOC and the attempted invasion of the British; and, finally, to the end of his life.
The apple of Jacob’s eyes is Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife with a prominent burn on her face, who is a medical student of Jacob’s friend, Dr. Marinus. Due to a chance encounter between the two involving a wayward monkey, Jacob became infatuated with Orito and fell in love with her. However, their union is not meant to be because not only is it forbidden in Japan but also because Aibagawa is whisked away to a secretive mountain shrine by Abbot Enomoto. In this part of the novel, Jacob becomes a minor character and the reins of the protagonist is given to Ogawa Uzaemon, a man who also has affections for Orito, and, together with a samurai, they try to rescue Orito from her prison. The plot then suddenly becomes a thriller (with sociopolitical overtones about the effects of feudalism in Japan) as it details the attempted rescue of Orito and the repercussions of its failure.
You can tell by reading, even if you have no knowledge of history, that David Mitchell poured real effort in creating this book. There is a certain architecture to the story that, in itself, is already complicated. However, the plot is made more complicated by the supposedly multi-lingual narrative of the novel. Although everything is written in English, there are parts that are supposedly spoken in Dutch, Japanese, and in British English. And, although everything is written in the same language, you can still feel the uniqueness between each language and that is cause for amazement towards Mitchell’s skill.
Mitchell’s prose is beautiful as well. His descriptions of Edo-era Japan is akin to reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ descriptions of Colombia in Love in the Time of Cholera. Both are lyrical descriptions that transport you to the place where the authors are describing. I know that Love in the Time of Cholera and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are stylistically different but I feel that, in my humble opinion, they share the same virtuosity in writing about the setting of their stories.
However, the book may be uneven at times. There are moments when things are proceeding in a very well-paced and then it will suddenly screech to a halt. There are times when it becomes effortless to read and then, in the next page, it will become a burden. But such unevenness does not take away the magnificence of Mitchell’s writing. The last two chapters of the novel is especially a moving one as it speeds up the narrative but still maintain the solemn tone. It involves the death of Marinus; Jacob and Orito’s final meeting; Jacob leaving Japan and Yuan, his son by a Japanese concubine; his life in his once-native land of Netherlands that has now become as foreign as his first days in Japan; and his death. Though it may not be a happy ending, it wasn’t a sad ending as well, because it was a warm and melancholic ending.
All in all, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (which is titled because of Japan is called “The Land of a Thousand Autumns” and thus the book can be translated as “The Japan of Jacob de Zoet”) is a good book that I would recommend to everyone. More than a historical novel, it is a tale about the eternal struggle between good and evil; about the reversal of fortunes; and, most especially, about, as Shiroyama puts it, the masterpiece that is life itself.
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