I love David Mitchell. I’ve been waiting for this book since 2006, when Black Swan Green was released. What makes this novel even more exciting is the fact that it’s all about Japan – the country in which I’m currently living. So basically, the combination of probably my most favourite author of modern times, and the history of Japan, has made me pretty anxious to read The Thousand Autumns of Jaco de Zoet.
When Jacob de Zoet arrives on Dejima, he is greeted with a sight like no other he has ever experienced. In this strange world where Japan meets the West, Jacob is so far out of his depth he doesn’t know what to do. But then he meets Orito, a young Japanese woman studying under the local Dutch doctor. He becomes instantly infatuated with her, but other forces are at work, conspiring against him.
Structurally, we are given three stories to follow – in sequence, they are Jacob’s arrival on Dejima, Orito’s time in an abbey, and the English ship coming to take Dejima. While points of view shift wildly, along with time, Mitchell has written a cohesive, singular narrative that manages to, at the same time, investigate both Japan, and the people who are fascinated with Japan. In fact, this is not really a novel about Japan. More than anything, this is a novel about Dejima – the island the Dutch are forced to live on in the bay of Nagasaki. Something like a prototypical Big Brother house, there are a wide variety of people living in tiny, unbearable conditions; cut off from their outside world, no news from friend or family, bar a ship that arrives in bay once every three years. It is no surprise, then, that the amount of infighting or bickering between the Dutch inhabitants overshadows a lot of what is going on in Japan proper.
So while this is a novel set on the cusp of change in an entire world region, at the same time, this is not a concern of any of the characters. Granted, no one really saw Matthew Perry coming, but by focusing on normal people, Mitchell doesn’t focus on the “big” questions of the time. Jacob de Zoet, for example, is a deeply Christian man, and yet while living in Dejima, he is not allowed to practice his faith, on pain of death. Jacob’s translator, Uzaemon, is himself trapped between two worlds – the ability to speak a foreign language is a rare enough occurence in itself, but the fact that he is in love with a woman who is not his wife makes it all the more difficult to be heard. Then there are the other Dutch citizens of Dejima – all more worried about their own money making schemes and ideas to care about the political machinations of the Japanese forces.
There are, of course, Japanese characters throughout the novel that also take centre stage. Most importantly, perhaps, is Orito Aibagawa, a midwife who is allowed to study on Dejima under the Dutch doctor, and with whom Jacob falls desperately in love with. As with many white men falling in love with Japanese women, though, this doesn’t seem to be based on any kind of mental or psychological contact, but rather with the fact that he finds her so exotic, he must have her. In this respect, I think Mitchell has missed a trick. The story of the white man falling for the private, mysterious, passive Asian woman surely has been told so many times now, we could have had something else here?
Orito herself, though, becomes our main focus for the middle third of the novel, so in many respects, this is forgiven. Her story is perhaps the most terrifying of them all. Her midwifery skills make her a valuable asset in the eyes of a creepy monk, who is doing weird things to women on a mountain. I won’t spoil it for you, but this tangential story is actually quite engaging, even though it doesn’t really have any bearing on the main plot at all. But from it, we see a woman who is deeply compassionate, a woman willing to stand up for what she believes, yet at the same time, is willing to sacrifice her own safety for the common good. In this respect, perhaps, she is too perfect, but as with many of the Japanese characters here, she is brought down to size whenever she sets foot on Dejima.
As with any good story, this is a novel about people. People who live in a highly claustrophobic, highly unnatural set of circumstances, and tend towards the overreaction side of human behaviour. For those of us who study Japan, or even anyone with an interest in Japan, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet will be a must-read. And for those who don’t, go read it anyway. It’s a David Mitchell novel – something that should be announced with trumpets, fanfare, and a giant parade.