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66. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,’ David Mitchell…

66. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,’ David Mitchell…

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.

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Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“Two hours pass at the speed of one but exhaust Jacob like four…”

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“…bibliophiles are not uncommon in Leiden, but bibliophiles made wise by reading are as rare there as anywhere…”

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“‘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’…”

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“Her name is Tsukinami, ‘Moon Wave’: Jacob liked her shyness.

Though shyness, too, he suspects, can be applied with paint and powder…”

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“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…”

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“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…”

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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…”

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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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59. ‘Ingenious Pain’/’Pure,’ an Andrew Miller double-header…

59. ‘Ingenious Pain’/’Pure,’ an Andrew Miller double-header…

Ingenious Pain, Andrew Miller

The plot of English author Andrew Miller‘s award-winning debut novel, ‘Ingenious Pain‘, sounds like something out of a Bond movie, featuring as it does a protagonist, James Dyer, who is born without the ability to feel pain, (or, just as importantly, pleasure). Rather than leading a world revolution from a secret volcano lair, Dyer instead becomes a doctor, and the novel follows his life from an understandably difficult youth to a race through 18th century Russia on the orders of Empress Catherine of Russia.

Miller‘s style is simple, steady and often unremarkable: he summarises Dyer’s life in the first chapter, and has indeed created a protagonist with whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to relate to. But the novel was enjoyable, a minutely-researched peek into Georgian England and Russia, and did turn up a few beautiful quotes, one on our ability to turn any attribute, positive or negative, into a competition:

“Farmer Dyer, his blind daughter and lame son, are pitied. In the aristocracy of suffering, Farmer Dyer is a Lord…”

and another echoing one of my favourite authors, Alain de Botton, in his excellent ‘The Art Of Travel‘:

It is a mistake to travel in the hopes of solving one’s problems. One merely transports them and is forced to endure them amongst strangers…”

One haunting image (pun intended) on the Doctor performing surgery on himself with the aid of a mirror:

“He begins to sew up his head, drawing together the ragged lips of the gash, and with such swiftness, such unconcern, it is – as the Reverend later writes to Lady Hallam – as if he were sewing only the head in the glass…”

And finally, on the difficulty of endings, which is something which has always haunted me in my writing, and more often than not left me disappointed with others’ writing:

“‘Well,’ says Dido, ‘if I were to write a novel I think it is the ending that should give me most trouble. Perhaps it was the same for Laurence Sterne.’

‘You mean,’ says James, ‘ it was easier for him to die than to finish the book?’…”

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Pure,’ Andrew Miller

I happened to read Miller‘s latest book, the again-award winning ‘Pure,’ shortly after breaking my Miller cherry, and found a novel again intricately researched and paced to perfection. This time, we follow the life of up-and-coming French engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte in his attempts to make a name for himself by removing a cemetery from the central Parisian region of Les Halles. The important point is the year in which these events are taking place: 1786, a mere three years before the French revolution, and the coming social and political upheaval (familiar to anyone who has seen the recent remake of ‘Les Miserables‘ as I did this week), is a shadow excellently cast across the whole novel.

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A quote on love to whet your whistle:

“But it is hard, whatever you have endured, to give up on love. Hard to stop thinking of it as a home you might one day find again. More than hard…”

and one which seemed like it could have been lifted straight from Jon Ronson‘s excellent ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats,’ (if you haven’t read any Ronson, go find some: or at least rent the wonderfully bizarre Ewan McGregor and George Clooney-led film version of ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats‘):

“‘Buildings are mostly air,’ says the engineer, quoting the great Perronet. ‘Air and empty space…'”

Finally, I was introduced to Miller at a talk where the first question on everyone’s lips in the audience, (except mine, since I appeared to be the only one who hadn’t read the book yet), was: why does the cover of the novel depict a man in a gorgeous, pale blue jacket, when Baratte, specifically purchases a green one which becomes a focal point of the novel. The answer? Authors don’t have nearly as much control over the artistic side of publishing as you would have thought, (J.K.Rowling apparently being an exception).

So, I leave you with the lush, if considerably inaccurate, cover.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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