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Book review: 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' by David Mitchell

The author delves into shogun-era Japan. It's a fiasco of missed signals and worse misunderstandings, although not a total flop — it features some of Mitchell's most luscious writing yet.

July 04, 2010|By Eric Banks | Special to the Los Angeles Times
(Michael Kirkham / For The…)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

A Novel

David Mitchell

Random House: 484 pp., $26

David Mitchell's new work, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," is conventional in more ways than one. Not only is the novel, set in Japan at the end of the 18th century, the least experimental book the British novelist has ever written — in fact, it cleanly passes as "historical fiction" — but with each passing book, he embraces a new genre, an innovative approach to fiction that has become the two-time Booker finalist's quirky signature. Throughout his barely decade-long career, the 41-year-old has moved limberly from one literary form to another. After the high-wire sampling of disparate genres in his formally daring Calvino- and Murakami-soaked "Cloud Atlas" (2004), who could have foreseen the intimate 2006 "Black Swan Green," a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of a stuttering 13-year-old in Thatcher's England?

Like "Black Swan Green," Mitchell's new book is more verbal calisthenics than structural gymnastics. It almost completely forgoes the first-person voice that Mitchell mastered in his prior work and limits itself to a short span of years (a nanosecond compared to the centuries-jumping "Cloud Atlas") and a few locales in and off Japan.

It is 1799 and the eponymous hero is a pious clerk from Holland during the waning days of the Dutch East Indies Co.'s trade monopoly with shogun-era Japan. The country's terra firma has yet to re-welcome the footprints of foreigners, so most of "Thousand Autumns" takes place on Dejima, the tiny island in Nagasaki's harbor where perforce exchanges of all sorts (mercantile, military, linguistic) take place. This little patch is a strange floating world of its own, a cramped universe containing the swindling Dutch company officials and their warehouses, gouty sailors speaking in salty doggerel, Asian magistrates and chamberlains, Japanese interpreters and a small contingency of East Asian slaves. There is also a half-civilized ape, called William Pitt, that first appears in the novel holding a bloody, freshly amputated leg courtesy of Dejima's resident Dutch surgeon, Marinus.

The clerk Jacob de Zoet has embarked on his career in the East to earn the guilders and esteem that will allow him to marry a sweetheart back home, and his superiors exploit his gullibility by asking him to work on a chronicle of petty corruption (a trick that exonerates the company's senior figures). His naiveté leads to a stunning inability to read the allegiances and motivations of those around him, setting in course their betrayal of him and his exile in Dejima. "The Orient is all about signals," one character muses, a theme running through "Thousand Autumns." The novel is a fiasco of missed signals and worse misunderstandings. Some are comical, as the Japanese go-betweens struggle to comprehend and translate Dutch phrases such as "impotent" and "proof positive," but many have grave consequences.

Mitchell milks this sense of tragedy in the second section of the novel, when a feudal warlord enslaves Orito, the Japanese midwife whom De Zoet has fallen for, in a bizarre mountaintop nunnery where ritual baby-harvesting (euphemistically called "The Engiftment") and murder are practiced. De Zoet undertakes to rescue her with the help of his closest Japanese interpreter friend, who organizes a commando-style mission undone by yet another act of betrayal and subterfuge. It's hard to know what Mitchell had in mind with this melodramatic detour into a comic-book Japonica of Shinto exoticism and Asian despotism, but it points to the author's unexpectedly weak handling of a crowded cast and twisting plot. The narrative is pockmarked with too many meanwhile-back-at-the-temple leaps, and the thread shows too often when Mitchell tries to stitch together the book's set pieces and character studies. In his earlier books, the disconnect of stories across time and space were fascinatingly and proddingly jarring. Here, they're frequently just jarring.

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