‘Oh I found ways to live to tell the tale. It’s my chief hobby-hawk is the noble art of survivin’.’
‘Loyalty looks simple,’ Grote tells him, ‘but it isn’t.’
‘…Expensive habit is honesty. Loyalty ain’t a simple matter, Di’nt I warn yer…’
It’s interesting that some of the main themes of David Mitchell‘s The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet are conveyed by one of its lesser (in terms of status) and more questionable (in terms of morality) characters, the Dutch cook, Arie Grote. Interesting because such a slippery and relatively minor character expresses some critical themes and because Mitchell’s making this choice provides a clue to the book’s tone and style. It has, in other words, a rather wry undertone.
So, what is its plot? Broadly, it is about the Dutch East India Company‘s activities on Dejima, a walled island in Nagasaki harbour, during Japan’s isolationist (or, “Cloistered Empire”) period, with most of the action taking place between 1799 and 1800. It follows Jacob de Zoet, a young man who arrives in 1799 to work as a clerk (and to make his fortune so he can return home to marry his love, Anna). What he finds is a multicultural community comprising Dutch, Japanese, a Prussian, an Irishman and others including Malay slaves, living and working within a complex web of ambitions, animosities and allegiances. He discovers pretty quickly that he’s going to need good survival skills to make it through. The question is: will he make it through, and will he do it with his integrity intact?
There is a love triangle of sorts, involving a young Japanese midwife named Orito. And there’s a drama centred on her “abduction” to a horrifying (invoking, for me, Margaret Atwood‘s The handmaid’s tale) monastery/nunnery called Mt Shiranui, which is overseen by the evil lord/abbot, Enomoto. This sounds, I admit, a bit melodramatic and in a way it is, but it seems to work, largely because of the characterisation.
The novel has a huge cast of characters, as this Character List (source unknown) shows and, over the course of 450+ pages, Mitchell gives us the backstories to many of them. At times I felt there was too much detail – as in “why do I need to know all this?” – but the stories were so interesting that I didn’t really mind. Mitchell is not, I have to say, a taker-outer and so, if you like your stories to move along at a fast clip, this is not for you. Many of the characters, from bottom to top of the hierarchy, are corrupt, as they scheme, bribe and manipulate for money, power and/or prestige, but not all are. Some of the most interesting characters are those who are not corrupt but are not perfect either. They include Jacob; the doctor/scientist, Dr Marinus, who tests Jacob somewhat cruelly; the young interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, who overlooks Jacob’s illegal importation of his Christian psalter; and John Penhaligon, the gout-ridden English captain who makes a play for Dejima late in the novel.
Having read and enjoyed Cloud atlas, I must say I kept expecting some, shall we call it, literary “tricksiness” but it never really appeared. This is historical fiction told in a linear fashion, albeit with the odd digression and some shifting perspectives. In fact, while not particularly “tricksy”, the style is not simple. There is a lot of variety in the telling:
- dialogue (and italicised thoughts of characters, as conversations or action occur);
- set-ups that don’t always follow through as you would expect (such as that concerning Jacob’s hidden psalter);
- scenes in which the main action is interspersed by something else going on (such as Cutlip preparing his boiled egg while Penhaligon negotiates with the slippery Prussian, Fischer);
- action and adventure; and
- a good deal of humour (including the scene in which a Japanese translator tries to translate a scientific lecture being given by Dr Marinus).
The language is similarly diverse. Mitchell uses irony, metaphor and symbolism, wordplay, and repetition, to name just a few techniques. Here, for example, is a rather lovely oxymoron:
The creeds of Enomoto’s order shine darkness on all things.
And here is a moving description related to an honourable death (without naming names):
An inch away is a go clamshell stone, perfect and smooth …
… a black butterfly lands on the white stone, and unfolds its wings.
I was impressed by the array of literary devices he used and how it never felt overdone. It was his language and characterisation, more than anything else, that kept me engaged.
The book does suffer a little, though, from the breadth of its concerns. I flicked through the book to jot down its themes and ran out of space on my page! So, I grouped them:
- Political/historical: commerce, nationalism, colonialism and slavery
- Philosophical: fate, faith and belief, truth
- Social: education, oppression of women, science and enlightenment
- Personal/psychological: loyalty and betrayal, honesty, love and integrity, survival
That’s a pretty broad church and, although some naturally overlap, the effect is to dilute the book’s impact somewhat.
So, how would I encapsulate it? Well, I’d sum it up as being about “imprisonment”, both literal and metaphorical. The Dutch are imprisoned on Dejima, the Japanese are imprisoned within their self-imposed isolationist policy, Orito and her “sisters” are imprisoned at Mt Shiranui. And people are imprisoned by their roles and/or culture. For example, women’s options are restricted, slaves have little control over their lives, and many of the characters, including Jacob, are imprisoned by their lack of economic resources that would enable them to freely choose their lives.
This is one of those rather unwieldy books that is hard to pin down but, despite this, I did rather enjoy watching Jacob and co. going about “the noble art of survivin'” in an intriguing place and time.