Saturday, September 22, 2012
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Genre: Historical fiction/conspiracy
Places and times can capture our souls. A wise man once told me that we spend ten percent of our lives making new happiness and ninety percent trying to stay there rather than trying to find new ways to be happy. Have we not all felt that tug of nostalgia for a day long gone, perhaps a golden afternoon from childhood or the memory of a young love?
In David Mitchell's newest novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he explores the bittersweet realities of losing your heart to something you can never have. With the light-fingered writing that he first showcased in 2004's Cloud Atlas, Mitchell draws us in again, this time to a far more grounded story of how enchantments really do exist.
When we first meet the titular character, he has just had his nose broken by a cheating former official of the Dutch East India Company. Jacob de Zoet is a humble clerk, hoping to earn the hand of the woman he loves back in the Netherlands by serving at the Company's Japanese port, Dejima, for the next five years. Little does he know that the land will change him and his life so drastically that he will never be the same. He quickly meets a number of fascinating characters, both Dutch and Japanese, but none so mysterious and deep as the burned girl Orito Aibigawa, the only female ever allowed to study medicine. With his utmost effort, he finally forges a hesitant friendship with her, attracted by her reticence and her quiet nature.
However, things are changing in isolationist Japan. As the story moves on, the characters disperse to their various fates, unable to fight the march of time and ambition, each wronged in a way that maroons them without a ship to carry them back.
Mitchell makes use of the factual Japanese law against foreigners not just to push the story along but to make a point: if we know a land and its people inside and out, we can still be strangers. It takes more than knowledge and familiarity to be welcome in a world. That is the heartbreaking core of the novel-- Jacob can never belong. He has a name given to him by the people, respect, money, status, and can still never be one of them.
The organization of this novel is a little disconcerting for traditional readers. Mitchell reeducated us with Cloud Atlas; by comparison, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a little gentler. We see parts of the story through the eyes of nearly every character at some point or another, which definitely throws the story around like dice in a cup, but lends a full feeling, like a blind man feeling the walls. Every perspective, every attitude, and every voice chips something in to make the tale the most it could be-- a time, a place, a people.
On an interesting historical side note, the end of the Dutch East India Company is an incredibly important and surprisingly overlooked moment in time. At one time, the Company was so powerful that it was basically an independent country, with its own flags and fleet of ships. Its ships traded from Batavia to Japan to Malaysia to the Netherlands and back. And yet, at the end of the 18th century, it imploded suddenly and violently, leaving an enormous economic gap in Southeast Asia, which in turn affected Europe. Mitchell does an excellent job of depicting this confusion and ambiguity in the novel, thorough for his readers but accurate to the sense at the time.
Despite the beauty of this novel, the construction is a little unbalanced. All the symbolic power is packed at the end, finishing on a terribly serious note, but many parts of the first half give a light-hearted air that belie the undertones of the story. This does appropriately endear us to the characters quickly, and we certainly know Jacob and Orito well by the end of the story, but the amount of ground that Mitchell covers in 477 pages just doesn't give us enough time to probe to the bottom of such interesting personalities.
And yet, the simplicity lends to the air of the novel. The last chapter is heart rending, breathtakingly beautiful, and quiet, just like the end of life-- as T.S. Eliot said, "this is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper." Jacob de Zoet, our brave and awkward hero, cannot change his world, because he's just a man that doesn't belong, but in doing that he has changed the world for good. People pass in and out of our lives for brief moments, their presence and their absence alike leaving marks.
Two years old, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is available on the Kindle for $12.00 or in paperback for as low as $10.20 from Amazon. Some libraries may have a copy, but small ones won't, and this book is definitely worth the time you spend reading it and the hours you'll devote to thinking about it afterward. Quiet and beautiful, just like the land it is set in, this novel flows like a quiet stream through your heart and leaves a coolness in its wake that aches for understanding, for belonging.