The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

24/04/10, The Times

It would be difficult to imagine a more breathlessly awaited book this year than David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Admirers of his bravura performance, in Cloud Atlas, of seamlessly stitching together genres, voices, modes, and narratives wildly separated in time, tone and settings, yet so brilliantly convergent that the book seemed to be more magically conjured than written, will find the new novel less of a dazzling fireworks display. The experimental chutzpah of Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas has given way to a more obviously conventional and unified narrative while compromising not one whit on the sustained richness. And he revisits the country that clearly holds a very special place in his heart: Japan. But, unlike the contemporary Japan of number9dream, this time Mitchell has turned to Japan in the two hinge years between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

It is 1799 and in a tiny artificial island, Dejima, connected to Nagasaki by a Land Gate that is rigorously guarded by the Japanese, a rag-tag collection of officials of the Dutch East India Company carry on the corrupt private trade which the newly arrived Chief Resident, Unico Vorstenbosch, and his head clerk, Jacob de Zoet, try to clean up. The magisterial Vorstenbosch and the diligent, flame-haired Protestant, de Zoet, go about their business, a large part of which also involves forcing or cajoling more copper out of the Japanese. Japanese copper (‘the bride for whom we Dutch have danced in Nagasaki’, as Vorstenbosch has it) oils the wheels of the Dutch colonial project in Batavia and without that copper, the import of which has fallen by nearly 5000 piculs in 9 years, the Dutch face insurrection, the end of the profitable trade in coffee and, finally, surrender to John Bull, the other colonial power that is beginning to get rapacious about East Asia.

But negotiation with Japan is an infinitely, elaborately tricky and frustrating business, for the country, governed by the isolationist sakoku (‘closed country’) policy from 1639, the beginning of the Edo period, is suspicious of foreigners, unbendingly intolerant of Christianity, and has in place the most stringent of rules enforcing the unlawful (this slippery word is open to interpretations) mingling of foreigners with the Japanese and fearful punishments for the transgression of these strictures. In a context bristling with such sanctions, de Zoet begins to fall in love with Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife training in Western medicine under Doctor Marinus, the Dutch doctor stationed at Dejima (a delightful creation, he). Against all odds, a halting interaction begins. An apparently minor player, Ogawa Uzaemon, one of the fleet of interpreters engaged to deal with the Dutch on Dejima, agrees to be a clandestine go-between in the delivery of a fan – a strictly verboten act – from the Dutchman to the midwife. (Uzaemon has already saved de Zoet’s life on two occasions and a friendship could have blossomed between the two men in a less hostile situation.) As a restless Vorstenbosch bullies and demands answers and solid commitments from the inscrutable and ceremonial Japanese, de Zoet’s world turns upside down in two plot twists that will leave you winded. It’s best left to readers to discover one; the other, while not giving away anything, involves the kidnapping of Ogawa by the men of Lord Abbot Enomoto, the powerful and sinister lord of the Kyôga Domain.

Part 2, set in inland Nagasaki and the Kyôga domain, and (almost) entirely away from the Dutch who dominated Part 1, brings about the sudden shift in gear that Mitchell is so magically marvellous at, complete with gradual and shocking illuminations of what has gone before. Orito takes centre-stage in this spooky, menacing and, at times, horrifying section unfolding in the remote Mount Shiranui Shrine. Here, Lord Enomoto presides over the Order of Mount Shiranui, a nunnery of deformed and mutilated ex-prostitutes, all brought in to produce babies fathered on them by Enomoto’s acolytes. There are shades of The Handmaid’s Tale in this episode and, once again, it wouldn’t do to reveal the awful purpose of this baby-farm, which, tellingly, does not have a single infant in it. As the true reason for her abduction, and the villainous way through which it has been effected, dawns on Orito, she attempts to escape. Threaded through is yet another storyline: Ogawa Uzaemon engages a troop of men to storm the mountain temple and free Orito. Yet again, Part 2 ends on some shocking twists, but this time they are somewhat predictable, their effect rather muffled.

For Part 3, the final section of the book, we move from the Dutch and the Japanese to the English, from land to sea, where Captain John Penhaligon and his frigate Phoebus are closing in on Dejima with the intent of ejecting the Dutch and establishing long-desired trade relations with the sealed-off country. India has recently become a British colony and Penhaligon has been dispatched by the Governor-General from Bengal to prise open Japan. On board is a Dutch ex-Chief Resident of Dejima, now in collaboration with his national enemy, the English, in order to settle some old scores on the island. The Captain, too, is driven by private ghosts – the onset of crippling gout, haunting anguish at the death of a much-adored red-haired son, the reckoning of posterity. Penhaligon’s initial idea of diplomacy with the Japanese using the Dutch fails, so he falls back on the last resort of the imperial bully: arms. As the Phoebus opens fire, Jacob de Zoet is left defending the Dutch flag on Dejima’s watchtower and, in another countermarching movement, the resolution to the story of Lord Enomoto nears its chilling end.
And then, in two short codas, Mitchell brings back the delicate ache of the unfulfilled love story, ending his vast symphony on an exquisitely elegiac minor key of a sonata. A bustling, panoramic, densely peopled novel then, whose emotional impact is perhaps weaker than number9dream, its architecture and reach perhaps less daring than Cloud Atlas but, on its own terms and in comparison with almost everything being written now, vertiginously ambitious and brilliant. In fact, this superlative brilliance can, on occasions, paradoxically give the novel a surface feel of grand artifice or self-conscious performance.

That quibble apart, Jacob de Zoet is executed on a vast canvas, every inch of which is worked with exhilarating skill and precision: a dragonfly is described as ‘jade-and-ash’, the detritus of a debauched New Year meal is picked to the last fish spine and blancmange gobbet, ‘needle-tips of birdsong stitch and thread the thicket’s many layers’ in a winter wood, wisteria ‘in bloom foams over a crumbling wall’, snow is ‘scabby and ruckled underfoot’. The deep-focus lens of his prose can tell you that a tea-tray is made of walnut wood, catch the decorative detail on the sleeves of a haori-jacket, without overwhelming you with information or ornamental-detail overload. How on earth does he do it? He can write as thrillingly about large-scale events (such as naval warfare or maritime trade in the eighteenth century) as he can about the private, micro world – the shade of a flower or the exact press of guilt in the heart. Such fluent and masterful command of both domains, macro and micro, large-screen, epic exuberance and eloquent minutiae, infolding one into the other, seems the stuff of a genius’s gifts, not the laborious world of craft and toil.

Not the least astonishing facet of Mitchell’s art is the supple effortlessness he brings to creating worlds entire, credible and fully-formed with such copiousness of detail and imagination that one is compelled to allow to pass through one’s mind the absurd thought that he was an inhabitant of Japan in 1799. Where a novelist such as Penelope Fitzgerald buried all the homework necessary for the writing of a historical novel, Mitchell revels in the transubstantiation of the research into a superabundance of physical, real-world details that never, not for one moment, reads as research. What Adam Thirlwell has provocatively said about Tolstoy as a miniaturist applies equally to Mitchell: the huge tectonic plates of history shift and grind away yet the minute attention to, say, the salty slang of seadogs, the crippling beating a slave is subjected to, or the ‘volcano-ash glaze of the Sakurajima cup’ from which two adversaries drink sake are the grounding details that convey the larger forces of history with tangible immediacy.

Like shot silk, which gives out different colours, depending on the angle of seeing or the light, Jacob de Zoet, turned one way, is a thriller with a glittering seam of a love-story running through it (or is it the other way around?), and twisted another, a sumptuous historical novel on the collision and miscegenation of cultures caught at a particular crossroads of history. Its dominant twin tones of lush yet restrained romantic yearning on one hand and high excitement and suspense on the other give way finally, in the last few pages, to what has really been the hidden controlling emotion: melancholy.