20 March 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Random House, 2010
 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set in 1799, during the time the Dutch East India Company occupied, with the permission of the Japanese shogunate, the port of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour.

We follow two main characters - Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk seeing out a five-year stint in Dejima to earn enough to marry his fiancee back home, and Orito Aibagawa, a young Japanese midwife. De Zoet, a man of integrity and intelligence, finds himself thrown into the local Dutch politics of the day, smitten with the beautiful but elusive Aibagawa and embroiled in the dark and sinister machinations of the book's villain, Lord Abbot Enomoto. It is tale told in the bipolar format of good vs. evil - most if not all of the characters are either one or the other.

I read The Thousand Autumns after returning from my annual pilgrimage to Japan, thinking it would be nice to indulge in something that reminds me of the land I so admire. I finished feeling slightly disappointed. Don't get me wrong, it was quite a page-turning treat. But it was also, if I may say, stereotypical and overly simplistic in its portrayal of a people and a culture that is so nuanced.  Take for example the close of an important dialogue between Jacob de Zoet and magistrate Shiroyama:

"Many sailors," de Zoet is saying, "in the Phoebus are not English."
De Zoet is anxious, "The captives must be allowed to surrender with honour."

"Surrender with honour." Shiroyama frowns. "We are in Japan, Acting Chief."

These little out-of-character episodes irritated me. From what (admittedly little) I know of the Japanese,  a person of authority would never have been facetious. If he disagreed, he would have simply declined to comment.

Also the fact that Jacob de Zoet was, in the end, forced to leave Dejima because "no precedent could be found in the archives" allowing him to stay. If anything, a Dutchman would have been asked to leave because the Japanese at the time distrusted foreigners. It should not be implied that they are, as a whole, motivated solely by precedent. It is in fact the delicate balance between tradition and change, expertly held, that has brought the Japanese to where they are today.

But these were at worst minor aberrations in the interest of the plot. Or at best, me being unnecessarily pedantic. Overall I appreciate Mitchell's attention to detail, including his efforts to present dialogue in a way that conveys the difference between what is spoken by the characters in Dutch, Japanese and English. Also his painstaking description of life in sixteenth century Japan - whether accurate or not I do not know, but certainly believable. Finally, I also like Mitchell's take on the singular reason why the Phoebus eventually turned away and refrained from attacking Nagasaki Harbour. The fictitious Phoebus incident is based loosely on the real-life events surrounding the arrival of HMS Phaeton at Nagasaki Harbour in 1808. The historical facts are easily available, but Mitchell's dramatisation of the characters involved lends a very human touch.

In conclusion - The Thousand Autumns doesn't quite make it to "literary fiction", but is a top contender for "good summer reading". I look forward to reading Cloud Atlas.

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