The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, By David Mitchell

Review,Boyd Tonkin
Friday 07 May 2010 00:00 BST

When, in 1999, Ghostwritten detonated in a millennial fireburst of invention and ingenuity, its young author fast became a name to drop when discussion turned to the future of fiction. After a middle-English upbringing and eight formative years as a teacher in Hiroshima, David Mitchell came back from Japan not merely armed with a repertoire of writerly skills that had his peers either loudly singing his praises or silently spitting with envy. At the bottom of a capacious box of tricks that allowed him to mimic any voice in perfect pitch, to turn on a sixpence between genres, to master borrowed style after style, lay reserves of charm and grace that lent a winning lightness to his planet-spanning tales. Here was not only a globalised fiction for the new century, rooted in the postmodern world yet blessed by the ancient spirits of story, but one that floated in on warm airs of hope.

Over the last decade, that promise has borne luscious but darker fruit. With his second novel, number9dream (the title taken from John Lennon), Mitchell's long immersion in Japan helped to anchor a set of tales that sent his innocent protagonists into regions of war, loss and grief. Cloud Atlas zipped from time to time and mind to mind with an exhilarating panache that never quite disguised its distress at the inhumanity of humankind. Ever the original, Mitchell wrote his first novel fourth: Black Swan Green measured the shadows that lengthen over the minutiae of provincial childhood.

If The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet shows a strong family likeness to these books, his fifth novel also spins fresh creatures from a prodigious creative DNA. From some angles it looks a more conventional novel of historical events (and pseudo-events) than its forerunners. Yet it invites us to think and feel about a clash, or convergence, of civilisations in a fierce new light. The book leaves a reader, as Ghostwritten did, in a space beyond "belief or disbelief", citizen of several worlds but tyrant or serf in none, only convinced, as its voice of truth says, that it is "Better to strive to co-exist, than seek to disprove".

In 1799, at the turn of Europe's century, the Dutch trading concession of Dejima is in decline. This "high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island" in Nagasaki harbour has for 150 years given the foreigner-shunning Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate its "sole window on the world". Yet the powers that be in Edo have cut the copper quota that the Dutch must export to keep their ailing colony of Batavia in Java afloat.

The French revolutionary wars have brought regime-change to the Netherlands, while the moribund Dutch East India Compnay fights rising British might on the high seas and rampant insider-dealing among its own slothful deputies in Dejima. Global commerce backed by naval guns threatens to burst this little bubble of East-West accord. At last it dawns on Japanese scholars that their "impregnable fortress" may soon be no more than a stop on the "ocean-road without frontiers".

On this European island at the lip of an insular empire, pickled as if in a "specimen jar" by its isolationism, young Jacob de Zoet from Domburg works as a clerk. He nurses ambitions for a higher post to match his nous and brain. Caught between worlds, in a trademark Mitchell limbo, Jacob learns the sciences of the West from his polymathic mentor, the sceptic Dr Marinus. A scion of the Ogawa clan of official translators gives him an entrée to the arts of Japan. Meanwhile, his fascination for the pioneer midwife Orito makes Jacob's urge to cross lines and find links a visceral as much as a cerebral mission.

If "the Orient is all about signals", as Jacob's bumptious chief insists, then each side has to read the other's mind. Both must decode an alien corpus of rules and emotions that looks to the outsider "back-to-front" and "topsy-turvy". Mitchell often plays this lost-in-translation theme for knowing laughs, as the licensed interpreters blunder between hemispheres (how to translate "privacy" or – fatefully – "repercussions"?). Yet unlicensed love – of the other's knowledge or, more riskily, of the other's person – may widen this gap into a chasm filled with fear.

On the Dutch side, Jacob must outfox a parcel of boozy, fiddling, whoring scoundrels with whose well-soused, shiver-me-timbers speech Mitchell has almost parodic fun. On the Nagasaki mainland, the orphaned Orito has caught the sinister eye of local grandee Abbot Enomoto. In this feudal overlord's mountainous domain, a strange nunnery hides bizarre misdeeds.

With a touch of Umberto Eco as well as his acknowledged debt to Haruki Murakami (we even meet a magic cat), Mitchell unspools his winding plot with a zesty relish for genre-fiction tricks and treats. A shocking kidnap; a rescue raid (led by a masterless samurai); a secret scroll; a hunt through dark passageways; a ghastly crime concealed behind ritual and superstition: the House of Sisters that claims Orito and her birthing skills is stacked to the rafters with storytelling booty.

Back on the coast, a Royal Navy frigate ominously hoves into view off Nagasaki (Mitchell backdates the actual Phaeton incident of 1808 by a few years). Against his liberal lieutenant's will, its gout-ridden Captain Penhaligon quenches the finer feelings of Enlightenment and aims "to give this despotic backwater a taste of the coming century".

If the brusque mariner's teacher - "Captain Golding" – hints at a source for these seaborne escapades (Golding's To the Ends of the Earth trilogy), this section also echoes epic novels of European force on Asian coasts by Timothy Mo or Amitav Ghosh. Like them, Mitchell finds affinities between enslavement and subjugation in ancient and modern, feudal and capitalist, forms. In a moving interlude, a Javanese slave develops "a mind like an island" as the only thing he can ever own.

However densely charted and richly sketched, this sumptuous imbroglio never drags. Its author often risks high-level pastiche but writes with such invigorating edge and dash that scarcely a sentence stands idle. From the taste of a persimmon's "threaded flesh" ("fermented jasmine, oily cinnamon, perfumed melon, melted damson") to a Joyce-like panorama of the city from above ("Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch..."), Mitchell flexes his prose virtuosity. More than before, those muscles do the heart's work.

We often catch a compassionate sense of lives – especially women's - imprisoned by history, custom, chance. Orito thinks of selfhood as a story-spinning "loom" which fashions consoling designs from accidents of birth and fate. Slave or sailor, nun or whore, noble or scholar, so few people on this shore can shape their own ends. Most can do no more alone to budge their destiny than the contorted foetus in the womb with which the book begins, doomed to stillbirth until Orito and her heretical skills go to work.

Neither, in the end, can Jacob weave his own pattern. His trans-oceanic dream of liberty and learning will close in the damp bathos of a Zeeland backwater – until, in a last spine-shivering gasp, the free spirit of the story walks again...

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