The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010) 469 p.
About five years ago Radiohead became my favourite band of all time – not a band that I would call my favourite based on a few songs, or a strong album, not a band that I would grant that title to after heavy consideration, but a band whose output was so stupendously good that I would automatically say their name when asked, a band so good that in my eyes they are catapulted far above any other bands, into an untouchable heavenly pantheon. The fact that they were an active band, one that still produces new albums, was all the better.
David Mitchell is the Radiohead of my personal literary tastes. His novel Cloud Atlas is my favourite book of all time, and he is far and away my favourite author. His novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the first one he has published since I started reading him, and as with Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” I met it with both excitement and concern. What if it failed?
Fortunately, it didn’t. Just as “In Rainbows” is one of Radiohead’s best albums, The Thousand Autumns is one of Mitchell’s finest novels. I am now really belabouring a comparison that has no significance to anyone but myself. Forget Radiohead, let’s move on.
Japan in the eighteenth century was a hermit kingdom: a completely isolated empire where foreigners were barred entry and citizens prevented from leaving, upon pain of death. Western influence was mistrusted and the Christian religion persecuted. West met East in only one place: the tiny, artificial island of Dejima, constructed in the harbour of Nagasaki, where the Dutch East India Company was permitted to maintain a small trading post.
Enter Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who arrives on Dejima in the summer of 1799, charged with purging the colony of its notorious corruption. The events that unfold over the coming years are a tale of love, science, adventure, politics, evil, pride, deception and murder. This is a more evolved work (some might say more “mature”) than Mitchell’s previous novels, and for the first third, it seems like a straightforward historical fiction novel. Yet David Mitchell remains David Mitchell, and cannot help himself from introducing an adventure. I do not say this to criticise – Mitchell’s talent for pastiche is what won him acclaim in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns is all the better for it. It’s quite telling that once this more adventurous plot strand was introduced, I became far more involved in the novel.
Mitchell’s talent for worldbuilding remains as strong as ever: Dejima is a fascinating outpost of corrupt officials, Japanese interpreters, monks, abbots, prostitutes, thieves, slaves, servants, sailors, captains and samurai. Even aside from its own strength as a novel, it’s a fascinating insight into a fascinating time in history.
The Japanese influence is, as one would expect, quite strong; indeed, Jacob is largely usurped as a character in the middle third of the book by the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, who seeks to rescue someone from a remote monastery. (You know you’re reading David Mitchell when you go from Dutch merchant accounts to a ninja raid on a mountain stronghold.) His previous novel Black Swan Green was clearly semi-autobiographical, detailing the life of a teenage boy in 1980s England. Mitchell also spent many years in Japan as an English teacher, and The Thousand Autumns clearly reflects this later period in his life – albeit more subtly – with a sense of being an outsider, incorrectly assuming your post is temporary, failling in love with someone from an alien culture, and feeling anguish over the way your children are “too Japanese to leave, but not Japanese enough to belong.” And the climax of the most important plot thread involves only Japanese characters, ending in a very Japanese way, and also delivering the best Justice Burn since the end of 24′s fifth season.
This is considered a forerunner for the 2010 Booker Prize, but I’m not certain it deserves it – not because it’s not a fine novel, or because the other contenders are superior, but because it’s not his best novel. I think Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green are both superior, and for him to win the Booker for this would be like Scorsese winning that Oscar for “The Departed;” a “Whoops, how have we not given this guy an award yet!” kind of thing. Mitchell is only in his forties, and I’m sure he has some even more razzle-dazzle stuff tucked away in that brain that will emerge in the coming decades. I certainly hope he can top Cloud Atlas at some stage.
In any case, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a wonderful novel and a delight to read, the best book I’ve read this year. I expected no less of my favourite author.