The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (novel) – A Grand Historic Humane Fiction

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British novelist ‘David Mitchell’ is widely known for his fecundity of imagination. Through his novels, he is said to have broken the conventions of storytelling methods. His showmanship and creative ability not only renders suspense and tension, but also serves as a great human experience. While all his previous novels were touted to be the ‘postmodern extravaganzas’, his 2010 novel “Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” has a straightforward, pellucid narrative. It takes place in a finite world and takes the reader through each streets and building and enlivens once experience through dozens of distinctly drawn characters. This historical fiction sweeps our mind to the 1799 Dejima — an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, which was also a Dutch East Indies Company outpost.

A young clerk named ‘Jacob de Zoet’ arrives to a Dutch Trading post (Dejima) in Nagasaki, which is under the control of corrupted, back-stabbing administrators and merchants. The events of the novel unfold between the years 1799-1817. In this time period, the closeted empire-nations trading terms with Dutch were always tense and it faced problems with Europe maritime powers (especially British). To protect Japan’s cultural purity, it was forbidden (for both foreigners and Japanese) to practice Christianity. Jacob’s has an innocent plan in this depraved land: to work hard and save enough money to marry his wealthy fiancee, Anna.

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Jacob’s plans get distracted by a smutty resident monkey, William Pitt.  The confrontation with Pitt leads Jacob to meet Aibagawa Orito, a midwife. He is immediately attracted to her, although she is treated as an outcast by the Japanese because of her burn-scarred face and knowledge. The infatuation makes him to befriend elderly grumpy Dr. Marinus. Jacob’s secretive efforts to meet Orito only results in awkward encounters, but his preoccupation with the young woman only deepens. Just as when we are expecting an Oriental love story, a new radical element comes in, involving Abbot Enomoto and his shady order of monks.

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After the death of Orito’s father, she was sold by her stepmother to Enomoto’s convent in the secluded mountain of Shiranui. The convent is a dark fertility cult, whose horrors are revealed incrementally through various scenarios. The second part of the novel fully happens in the mountain temple and revolves around Orito’s captivity. Jacob’s friend and interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon gets involved in the situation and vows to free Orito. The why and how’s are the riveting part of this novel. In the third part, the situation grows dire on Dejima, due to the arrival of a British warship ‘Phoebus.’ The Dutch East India Company is shrinking due to the flourishes of Napolean. The fate of Jacob and Orito is intertwined, even though the story deals is laced with three different scenarios in the three parts.

In a historical fiction, a reader will be well aware of what will happen in the end. Here too, we know that the Dutch trading post will cease to function and that the British will spread throughout South East Asia, but such predictable concerns are sidestepped by Mitchell’s inclusion of mysterious convents, naval engagements and family sagas. Mitchell’s proses are simple, alternating between one sentence narration and single line dialogue. There are also long monologues and a bit hard to grasp sailor dialects, but it doesn’t feel excessive. Another clever maneuver is the alternating points of view (something equivalent to split screen in cinema), where the characters have outward conversation with different inward thoughts. Towards, the end, Mitchell gives us a glorious page-and-a-half, which follows the panoramic view of gulls flying over Nagasaki in the morning: “Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers; heart-broken slatterns; fish wives dismembering lobsters; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs”………… and it goes on and on to transport us into the “land of thousand autumns.”

David Mitchell

David Mitchell

Deaths that looms over several chapters of the book is finished with a poetic language (“Thunder splits the rift where the sun floods in”; “a black butterfly lands on the white stone, and unfolds its wings.”) Mitchell doesn’t flinch in portraying the graphic scenes: William Pitt running off with amputated leg; the ghastly forceps birth; and the dark humored nasty procedure of “intussusception.” Lust, greed and violence run throughout the characters, but there is also boisterous beauty, love and grace. De Zoet and Ortio are so mature. Initially, they look like curiously naive characters, but rises in stature when faced with a dreadful moral choice. The sensationalistic machination of evil abbot makes us care about their fate.

In the novel, a Japanese official says that human beings have become “masks behind masks behind masks,” but Jacob shows us that even in this danger and treacherous world, if one clings hard to his faith, he can emerge intact without any inner wounds.  “Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is not a simple tale of forbidden love. It is an emotionally complex and powerful historical tale that feels so close to our dilemmas and problems.

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