The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell has written an historical novel which equals if not surpasses the originality of his previous prize-listed works including Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. Japan is the ‘land of a thousand autumns’. In 1799, Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) clerk Jacob de Zoet arrives on Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour to uncover the previous chief’s malpractice. For over a century, the VOC has been the only point of contact between Japan and Europe. Foreign traders are forbidden to leave the VOC trading fortress, and the Japanese cannot leave their native land. Yet the learning of the Enlightenment seeps into Japan, and mysterious tales slip out via interpreters.
De Zoet’s investigation makes him unpopular with his colleagues, but he is befriended by Interpreter Ogawa and becomes drawn to one of the few women on the island, Orito, a midwife. Three themes are interlinked by an intriguing narrative that ultimately resolves them. Orito is taken by Abbot Enomoto to a monastery in the mountains to join the sisters, whose purpose is shrouded with a terrible secret. The study of power and corruption on the island and on the mainland culminates when the English appear in the harbour and loyalties are stretched to the limit. De Zoet’s personal journey is the final narrative theme. His courage and intelligence are tested both by his love for Orito and by threats to the Company.
Whilst many of the novel’s characters possess humanity, others are calculating. This is a poetic study of two claustrophobic, very different worlds, teeming with life and vividly depicted. The details are fascinating and the prose beautiful: ‘Cicadas hiss in the pines. They sound like fat frying in a shallow pan.’ The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is so rich a novel that a short review cannot do it justice. It is simply magnificent.