by Robert WeibezahlJuly 2010
David Mitchell explores Japan's hidden treasures
A versatile and imaginative writer, David Mitchell has earned a devoted following for his virtuosic novels, two of which have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. With his sumptuous new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell eschews the postmodern razzle-dazzle of Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream for a more straightforward, albeit exquisitely detailed, historical romance about a Dutch outpost in Nagasaki harbor at the turn of the 19th century and Japan’s reluctant passage from isolation to trading partner of the West.
Dejima was an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki that contained the warehouses and employee lodgings of the Dutch East Indies Company. Joined to the mainland by a short bridge, the island was off-limits to most Japanese, and likewise the Dutch were, with few exceptions, not permitted to cross over into Nagasaki. The young clerk Jacob de Zoet arrives there in 1799 on a five-year contract, hoping to earn his fortune and return to Zeeland to marry his beloved.
The pious son of a pastor, Jacob is a diligent, intelligent and inquisitive clerk, more open than many of his compatriots to the cultural curiosity that is Japan. The only women permitted to breach the isolation of Dejima are common prostitutes and the courtesans that serve as the “wives” of the company officers, so Jacob is startled when he meets a young woman who is neither. Aibagawa Orito, an accomplished midwife and the facially scarred daughter of an eminent doctor, has obtained special dispensation to study under the island’s Dutch physician, Lucas Marinus.
Jacob falls in love with Orito from afar, but such a union faces seemingly insurmountable hurdles. He solicits the help of his translator, Ogawa Uzaemon, to intervene on his behalf, unaware that Uzaemon himself has long loved Orito and had hoped to marry her himself until his father declared the match unsuitable. Mere hopelessness turns to outright despair when Orito’s father dies and she is sold into a Shinto nunnery in payment for his debts. For the middle third of the novel, the story moves primarily to the Mount Shiranui Shrine, where Orito is unwillingly incarcerated as part of a sinister ritual involving the birth and dispatch of infants. A bit of Kurosawa-like samurai adventure surrounds Uzaemon’s attempt to rescue her from this virtual prison.
In the last part of the story, Jacob again takes center stage, as a British frigate arrives in the harbor and attempts to usurp the Dutch stranglehold on Japanese trade. Far removed from the power shift in Napoleonic Europe, the residents of Dejima have been unknowingly cut loose, and it will fall to the Dutch clerk—who until that moment has been professionally hampered by his honesty—to lead the rag-tag remnants of the now-defunct trading company to an honorable peace with both the English and the Japanese.
Mitchell paints an intricate and sensitive portrait of late feudal Japan, and he deftly conveys the backstories and inner lives of the Europeans. For all its impressive historical accuracy and well-played adventure, though, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is at heart a series of love stories. Mitchell deftly ties together his trifurcated narrative with a through line drawn from longing and unfulfilled love: Jacob’s love for his Dutch fiancée and for Orito, Orito’s for both Uzaemon and Jacob, Uzaemon’s for Orito, and in the final section, the British ship captain’s for his deceased wife.
The novel’s deceptively matter-of-fact ending has an undeniable poignancy, wrapped in a quiet bereavement for the inevitable pain of broken intimacies that comes with expanding horizons.