No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, December 26, 2016

2016/75: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet -- David Mitchell

"Doctor, do you believe in the Soul’s existence?"
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply.
"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."[loc. 3042]

The year is 1799. Jacob de Zoet has been packed off by his prospective father-in-law to Dejima, the manmade island in Nagasaki Bay that is the sole point of contact between Japan and the rest of the world. Jacob is there to make something of himself: the Dutch East India Company is there to make a vast profit, ideally without letting on just how precarious its own position is. Tensions run high on Dejima, both between the various European factions and between the Europeans and the Japanese. De Zoet does his bit to make himself unpopular by uncovering evidence of past corruption and dishonesty. He is also in possession of an illegal book -- and befriends the translator, Uzaemon, who helps him conceal this crime.

Meanwhile, a young midwife named Orito Aibagawa has (by saving the lives of baby and a mother in a difficult birth) been granted the exclusive, extraordinary privilege of studying with one Doctor Marinus, Dejima's resident physician and a thoroughly Enlightenment fellow. De Zoet encounters Miss Aibagawa a couple of times, and falls recklessly in love with her. But their love is (of course) doomed: she is sent, against her will, to be a Sister in the remote temple-compound of Abbot Enomoto. There, she discovers a horrific cult and a fragile calm that's built on lies.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has a large cast and a sprawling plot, though all (or most) of the elements do come together in the end. There is romance and swashbuckling, in both Japanese and European modes, and plenty of intrigue and double-dealing from all concerned. Themes of imprisonment and sacrifice -- literal and metaphorical in both cases -- permeate the novel, and Mitchell uses that large cast to demonstrate many and varied ways in which human beings can be captive, free and both at once.

It's also immensely readable. I love Mitchell's writing here, full of jewel-like phrases ('Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting' [loc. 1162]), profound discussions and humour that ranges from earthy to refined. I admire the transition from the Dutch / European chapters to the Japanese, and back. The characters, whatever their moral alignments, are generally interesting (though Mitchell doesn't always flesh them out as much as I'd like) and their interactions credible.

Reading this after The Bone Clocks is ... a weird kind of tantalisation. Would I have picked up all those little hints?

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