The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, By David Mitchell
A coruscating narrative of style and wit shows a twice Booker-shortlisted author still improving
Sunday 16 May 2010
Fans of David Mitchell, most of whom seem to have been the first to "discover" him when his brilliantly fresh and original Ghostwritten was published in 1999, have waited with some trepidation for this new novel. Two years after Ghostwritten, Mitchell proved his credentials with the wonderfully inventive number9dream. Three years on, he went one better with Cloud Atlas – a dazzling literary Möbius strip of a novel that secured his place as one of the best writers of his generation. Shortly afterwards came Black Swan Green – a straightforward, semi-autobiographical tale that was more like a typical first novel but much, much better. So, four years on, how can Mitchell possibly produce yet another book that is completely different again, and even better than the last?
On the face of it, a historical novel set on a remote Dutch trading outpost in Japan in 1799 would not seem the best place to start. But Mitchell plunges in with relish, giving us in the opening pages a midwife attempting to dismember an unborn child, a high-minded junior clerk having his nose spread across his face in a brawl, and a magnificent piece of slapstick involving a beautiful woman, a severed foot and a stream of monkey piss delivered as "a warm and liquid whiplash, smelling of roast beef, [flaying] his cheek".
The clerk is Jacob de Zoet, transported to the island of Dejima until he is rich enough to marry his fiancée, Anna, back home. The midwife is Orito Aibagawa, with whom he inevitably falls in love. In saving the child of a powerful official, she has earned the right to work and study on Dejima, an artificial microcosm where men of many nations meet and trade, separated from an insular Japan by its land gate, and from the rest of the world by about a million years. Women are forbidden, unless they are prostitutes. Christianity is outlawed. Even learning Japanese is against the rules, though Jacob's struggle to understand his distant hosts is a powerful theme. The traders own slaves, warehouses, islands and seas, considers one servant, and "yet they complain that Dejima is a prison".
In this claustrophobic crucible, Mitchell is free to unleash his talent. Genres merge and interact like the shimmering colours of a kaleidoscope. A folkloric quest swims to the surface of a love story; war games glimmer behind a Falstaffian exchange. All of this is shot through with imagery from Japanese art, studded with near-haiku: "Birds are notched on the low sky. Autumn is aging." "Marigolds in the vase are the precise shade of summer, remembered." In previous novels, Mitchell created multiple narratives brought together with aplomb. Here, one story contains multiplicities, woven together with golden thread.
Typically of Mitchell's novels, The Thousand Autumns... has a narrative in several voices. The translator, Ogawa Uzaemon, emerges from his position as a cipher and go-between to become a forceful, and then a tragic figure. Aibagawa, when she is taken by a sinister spiritual order in which women are drugged and "engifted" by monks, breaks free from the objectifications of the smitten De Zoet and shows with steel and pluck that she is her own woman. One wonderful, minor character is Marinus, the doctor: he stands for Science and Reason and as a Sensei, but he is no mere symbol. And the comic intervention of a gouty British sea captain brings levity, and then gravity, to proceedings in the final, breathless rush to a denouement.
The novel, obviously, is not perfect. By the end, I was still unable to distinguish with any certainty such an array of character names. It takes concentration. But it also repays it.
Mitchell is sometimes criticised because his novels never seem to mean anything. So what? "The belly craves food," says Orito, "the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories." Here, Mitchell gives us a world of stories in prose that brings a lump to the throat. He also gives us, in the prose-poem on page 441, one of the most thrilling single pages of any novel I've read.
His fans will open the novel feeling nervous of disappointment, yes. But then they will close it in tears and turn immediately back to page one to begin again. To them, I say: don't worry, dive in and lose yourself in a world of incredible scope, originality and imaginative brilliance. David Mitchell has done it again.
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