‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,’ David Mitchell
David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors, with a penchant for swooping prose and beautiful allusions, not to mention a breadth of interests and expertise which enabled him to write ‘Ghost Written,’ one of the most ambitious, sweeping books I have ever read, and to follow it up with ‘Black Swan Green,’ a sweetly simple story of a year in the life of a teenage boy growing up in rural England.
This, his latest release, (although dating back to 2010), was maybe my least favourite in terms of style, but still an interesting fictional account of the Dutch merchants who were allowed to base themselves out of the trading port of Nagasaki, southern Japan, in 1799. (Mitchell was an English teacher in Japan shortly before I was, giving me hope as well as inspiration for my future writing career).
Just like Andrew Miller’s ‘Pure,’ (reviwed here), or Kazuo Ishiguro‘s ‘The Remains of the Day,’ one of the interesting aspects of this historical fiction is the underlying sense of an era ending: the clash of East and West which within half-a-century or so is to come to a head with Commodore Perry’s enforced opening of the country to the rest of the world. But for the duration of the novel, we are treated to a mixture of medical procedures, cultural and magical traditions, political intrigues and machinations, and a light sprinkling of romance. Fans of Japan, historical fiction, or Mitchell’s other books may like to try it, or to delve into his back catalogue.
Here are some of my favourite quotes:
“Two hours pass at the speed of one but exhaust Jacob like four…”
“…bibliophiles are not uncommon in Leiden, but bibliophiles made wise by reading are as rare there as anywhere…”
“‘Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?’
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. ‘Yes.’
‘Then where…’ Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton ‘…is it?’
‘The soul is a verb,’ he impales a lit candle on a spike, ‘not a noun’…”
“Her name is Tsukinami, ‘Moon Wave’: Jacob liked her shyness.
Though shyness, too, he suspects, can be applied with paint and powder…”
“Gloria, you must remember, had rarely gone beyond the Singel Canal. Java was as far off as the moon. Further, in fact, for the moon is, at least, visible from Amsterdam…”
“A chubby hand slides the door open and the boy, who looks like Kawasemi when he smiles and like Shiroyama when he frowns, darts into the room…”
Finally, a line which could only have been written by someone who had spent a lot of time teaching in a Japanese classroom:
“Jacob notices that where a Dutch pupil would say, ‘I don’t understand,’ the interpreters lower their eyes, so the teacher cannot merely explicate, but must also gauge his students’ true comprehension…”