The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet – David Mitchell

8 October 2010
Chapters 1-9
I’m about a quarter of the way through and, except in the first chapter, we’re with a resourceful shipping clerk making his way in 1799. Mitchell has placed him in the Dutch East India Company which, at the end of the troubling first decade of the 21st, he seems to be using as an archetype of capitalism in all its ravening ugliness. Jacob is in Japan to help his superiors clean up the corruption, but he’s having a difficult time because the ethos of the company, certainly at the level he’s dealing with, is based on it. People make up their salaries by constantly creaming off, adjusting figures, giving and taking bribes. Early on we witness the drumhead trial of one of the company’s agents, but all the men Jacob has to work with afterwards look back to his time with nostalgia.

So far, I’m not massively bothered by any of it. Mitchell seems to be making a convincing job of creating the world of these Europeans on their tiny walled island, trading uneasily with Japan under the Shoguns. But how would I know? The hierarchy of Japanese society is perfectly believable, but hardly unexpected – and when Mitchell hints at parallels with the strata of European society, complete with its slaves, there’s nothing to make us uncomfortable. The world we’re being shown is believable in its detail but, so far, most of what Mitchell is telling us seems a bit obvious. We’ve been here, or somewhere rather like it, in plenty of other novels.

So Mitchell needs us to be interested in his characters. In Chapter 1, before we meet Jacob, we get two dedicated professionals: a Dutch doctor and a young Japanese midwife. They are assisting at the extremely difficult birth of the son of the Magistrate, one of the local high-ups. After their (well researched) efforts to dislodge the awkward foetus, it is stillborn. But, in what proves not to be the only instance of this author showing us what a benign presence he can be, a mewling sound is heard some minutes later. Who brought that cat in? (Etc. etc.)

Jacob also proves to be a dedicated professional. He’s a pastor’s son, and we expect him to be wet behind the ears… but, so far – and, yes, I know I’m only a quarter of the way through – he’s proved himself a match for absolutely everybody he meets. The other clerks assume they can carry on their thieving ways, but he knows their tricks and their manners, and has enough over them to stop them doing it. He has to try and get round the doctor, the one we’ve already met, to try to get some time with the midwife he’s become fascinated with despite the disfiguring burn scar on her face. He succeeds, and the only price he has to pay is a demonstration Mitchell presents as comic – in front of a crowd of students that includes her – of a newfangled smoke-blowing emetic machine. And when a Japanese interpreter tries to cheat the company by mistranslating a figure on a scroll, our man is there to outmanoeuvre him – in public, no less.

Obviously, he’s making enemies. The interpreter gets revenge by trashing his room, but in a way that renders Jacob powerless to do anything about it. The doctor, not at all his enemy, likes to show him he’s nobody’s fool, as we’ve seen. And someone has let Jacob know that the highly irregular way he has spirited a beloved book into the country has not gone unnoticed. Wherever he goes, people file away useful information for later…. Jacob does it himself in one of his battles with a colleague (to do with marked playing-cards). And everybody is jealous of the financial killing he’s already made with large jars of mercury powder: even an earthquake didn’t smash that little consignment of goodies. So. Secret information, favours, intrigue: this is the world in which Jacob is embarking on a hoped-for affair. (We don’t even know whether to believe the drunken tales of their colourful early lives his colleagues tell him.)

I hope Mitchell stops making it so easy for him soon. So far, except for the white lies he tells himself about his feelings for the Japanese midwife and Anna, the woman he’s left behind, he could be presented as an example of good triumphing over evil. Maybe he’ll start to lose some of his battles. Or maybe the equivocating imperatives of capitalism will start to get under his skin, just like everybody else’s, and this will be a novel about how the innocent abroad simply can’t remain that way forever.

10 October
Chapters 10-13 – to the end of Part 1
It’s happened. Not the undermining of our man’s honesty – he refuses to sign a falsified document for Vorstenbosch, the boss who’s turned out to be just like all the others – but the crisis his honesty brings on his head. Mitchell has been leaving broad clues lying about for us to fall over, about how nothing and nobody are what they seem in this morally topsy-turvy world. There’s been another comic warning from the doctor, the only other white man who doesn’t seem to approve of what he sees going on around him. Jacob is easily winning a billiards match, and the doctor persuades him to increase their light-hearted little wager as a chapter ends. It’s only later that we find out that the doctor was hiding his expertise, and Jacob is lucky his forfeit is only in the form of hours spent working in the garden.

We’ve even had warnings about Vorstenbosch. He is extremely fond of his own position and status, rejoicing in the petty humiliations he can inflict on the Japanese or the concessions he can squeeze out of them. He’s horribly racist – like every other white man on the island except Jacob and the doctor – only just outdone by the Carolina sea-captain who sees Africans as no better than animals, or Fischer, the German who uses the trumped-up story of his own escape from sadistic cannibals as an excuse for savagely beating one of the slaves. (Mitchell piles on the agony: the slave is drunk because he’s just found out he isn’t going to be freed after all. Any novel set in colonial times – The English Passengers, Secret River – contains plenty of reminders of how bad most of us Europeans were only a couple of centuries ago.) And when it’s left in his hands whether to commute the sentence of execution by beheading of two thieves who stole his precious teapot, he triumphantly refuses. The beheadings go ahead, to the disgust of the Japanese. (And Jacob – and the reader, of course.)

So we know this man will be far less forgiving of Jacob’s naivety than the doctor – and this time the punishment isn’t going to be measured in hours. In an early chapter Vorstenbosch asked him to forge a letter from the governor (or somebody) demanding a bigger consignment of copper; it would be useful in negotiations with the Shogun. On his first day in post, Jacob has no way of knowing that a) Vorstenbosch is going to use the extra copper to line his own pocket and b) he could threaten him with a trial for forgery if he says anything about it. (I’m as naïve as Jacob, so I didn’t suspect either. Which is why I thought Mitchell was giving him too easy a ride. Duh.)

This is exactly what is laid out on the table before Jacob immediately after the meteoric promotion he’s just received. Pastor’s son that he is, he hadn’t realised that the new job depended on him toeing the boss’s line, and now he’s just found out he’s going to be reduced to the ranks and left on this godforsaken island. We see the triumphant way Jacob is treated by the sadistic Fischer, one of the men whose misdemeanours he’s assiduously catalogued in his report. And we follow him to the harbour to watch his hopes, in the form of the ship back to civilisation, sail out and beyond view.

While he’s there he sees the gate on another hope being closed, literally. (Mitchell likes to make it literal.) Earlier in the same chapter, Jacob has found out that Orito, the Japanese midwife who has not been rejecting his tentative gifts – a fan containing her portrait, a valuable dictionary – has been practically sold off following her father’s financial crash. The fact that she is going to spend her life in a nunnery smacks of a kind of authorial game. It’s as though Mitchell has just let Jacob – and the reader – know that from now on it’s no more Mr Nice Guy. As Chapter 13 ends Jacob has just seen her vain attempt to get back on to the island. By the time he realises, at bloody last, that she’s the one he really loves and races to speak on her behalf, he’s too late. The sea-gate is closing behind her, and he has already been counting the years he’s going to have to live in this prison, at the beck and call of, let’s face it, its crew of pantomime villains.

15 October
To Chapter 19…
…which is half-way through Part 2, and half-way through the novel. Disconcertingly, the man we’ve been with for twelve out the first thirteen chapters hardly features. Instead, the focus is on Orito’s inside story, literally – the nunnery is a kind of prison, with the sisters serially impregnated by monks – and figuratively. Before this she’s been peripheral, the object of Jacob’s rather innocent speculations. Suddenly she’s the main character – and this is a dangerous decision for an author to make, especially when it’s been difficult enough for readers to be interested in the man who has been the almost exclusive focus of Part 1.

One of Mitchell’s earlier novels, Cloud Atlas, is a tour de force of a kind of wrong-footing of the reader’s expectations. After a while we learn not to expect the kind of development of character that you get in novels, and we’re content to be carried along by the virtuoso display of different narratives from different genres. But in what, up to now, has been an entirely conventional novel the idea of turning a peripheral character into a major one and vice versa, well, seems like a rather pointless trick.

Maybe I’d be feeling better about it if the place where Orito finds herself was a bit more believable. But Mitchell has dumped her – and us – into a place that’s a cross between Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with its pseudo-religious elevation of a kind of joyless act of procreation, and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with its preposterous inward-looking world of children bred for an unspeakable ulterior purpose. Orito’s is a very modern-sounding sensibility, so it’s hardly surprising that she sees right through the cultish moralising which is only designed to deceive desperate girls into a life of serial pregnancy. At the point I’ve reached, Orito thinks she might have found an escape route. I hope she’s right, because I’ve had enough of it.

And… there are too many other changes from what was going on in Part 1, Mitchell no longer stays with one claustrophobic location and one point of view for chapter after chapter. We’re with an ancient woman to start with, a herbalist in her cottage as a mysterious and melodramatic incident takes place; we’re back in Dejima, the Dutch island, with the doctor; we’re in a lecture somewhere else with Japanese movers and shakers; and we’re with the one of the Japanese interpreters we’ve already met – who turns out to be a former suitor of Orito, forced by his family to give her up. It isn’t that I’ve got anything against this sort of narrative changing of track. It’s just that I find it even harder to care about anybody. All these stories – including, occasionally, Jacob’s own and the ridiculous running thread of the nunnery as secret breeding-farm, make for a somehow diluted experience.

I’ll tell you more about it when I’ve finished Part 2.

17 October
Chapters 20-26…
…and Mitchell has ended Part 2 with an event that experience has taught us not to take at face value. Uzaemon, Orito’s former suitor, has just gone through an action movie adventure and has ended up facing Enomoto, the villain. This man, the Abbot of the monastery, has the latest bit of imported technology, a pistol. After gloating over Uzaemon’s stupidity for some minutes and lovingly describing the pistol’s mechanism like a James Bond villain, he does what such villains always do: goes for an untested method of dispatching his enemy. He fires the foreign weapon at Uzaemon at point-blank range, and the thunderous sound of a gunshot ends the final sentence. But… one thing every reader knows about 18th Century firearms is how unreliable they were, and Mitchell has ended previous chapters with us thinking, wrongly, that we know what is going to happen next. All we really know is, he’s a trickster, and that a dead or dying villain is at least as likely an outcome as a dead Uzaemon.

Before all this, I was becoming more and more dissatisfied with this novel. The last time I wrote, I was hoping that Orito would make her escape soon – and for a chapter or two she makes her way like an intrepid matinee heroine through the obstacle-strewn route to the outside world. Secret passages are just wide enough, centuries-old stonework is just loose enough – and, of course, our heroine is always just lucky enough – for success to be hers. Mitchell, presumably, expects us to recognise how preposterous this is. I’ve called him a games-player before now, and the game has become spot the genre. Fine. But, reader, it isn’t very good. And the escape chapter ends with her poised above the precipitous route to the outside world. So she’s out, yeh? If you think that, you haven’t been paying attention.

Anyway. As she’s been making her tortuous way along corridors and into Indiana Jones-like secret inner chambers, she’s been overhearing conversations and finding clues. It’s so crude a way for Mitchell to feed her (and us) bits of information about the workings of this preposterous monastery that I kept wondering if it’s all part of the game. Whatever. What we find out is that not only is it a breeding farm, but the babies are sacrificed soon after birth and at least some of their letters from the outside world – all of them, we later discover – are forgeries.

The other narrative thread is Uzaemon’s, which has begun in parallel with Orito’s but gets under way properly after we leave her peering out at the almost impossible route down the mountain. In other words, as Uzaemon decides to give up the bookish life of the court interpreter and turn into a rescuer like the hero of a Boys’ Own story or Robert Louis Stevenson yarn, we think she’s already left. This being the tricksy story it is, we think Uzaemon‘s mistake is believing that Orito is still inside the monastery – but, of course of course, that isn’t his mistake at all. Come on, what have we learned from the 300-odd pages we’ve already read? What famous warning does Uzaemon’s sensei quote for him (and us)? Never trust anybody. The sensei isn’t helping him to rescue Orito, he’s simply conveying him into the hands of the enemy. (And no, I didn’t guess. I’ve said before how naïve I am in situations like this.)

So, I’m not convinced. With a tiny number of exceptions, everybody in the Japanese world Mitchell has drawn for us is on the make – just like the Europeans. Uzaemon, like the hapless De Zoet in Part 1, is surrounded by people who want to do him in. He’s been forced into one of those unhappy marriages of convenience Mitchell would have us believe is the norm in Edo Period Japan, and the only way he can do anything meaningful in his life is by throwing in his lot with a man who turns out to be like everybody else.

So everything he’s been living through – with us poor hapless readers by his side – is a set-up. At one point Mitchell throws out one of those clues that I find terribly easy to miss. As the rescue plan goes like clockwork. ‘Uzaemon marvels at the weaverless loom of fortune.’ I assumed the palpable irony of this to be the fact that the weaver is there all along in the form of an author in 21st Century Europe. But no: the weaver is Enomoto and his insane scheme to keep things just as they are. He thinks the sacrifices have kept him alive for 600 years, and he isn’t going to let some upstart bring that to an end. It really is a plot straight out of a Saturday children’s matinee.

We even have a cliffhanger. Or two: first, we don’t know what happens when the gun goes off; and second, there’s the scroll. We first see this when one of the acolytes of the sect arrives in the middle of a dark and stormy night at the old woman’s hovel, and it finds its way to Uzaemon via a fortuitous chain of circumstances that reminded me of the risible plotting of The Da Vinci Code. The scroll contains a copy of the monastery’s appalling ‘creeds’, and Uzaemon has had the foresight to leave it in the safest place he could think of – with Jacob De Zoet. And – and you’ll have to wait until Part 3 to find out whatever is going to happen next.

But I’m not being entirely fair. For a start, alongside Mitchell’s genre games he has ambitions as a writer of literary fiction. This might sound like faint praise, but actually he’s incredibly good at a particular kind of topographical description and evocations of place. Often it’s like being inside a Japanese artwork of the period he’s describing (or, if I’m honest, a few decades later): pin-sharp woodblock prints, or the misty brushwork of the floating world. And he’s brilliant with sound, the feel of pre-industrial discomfort, the harshness of a Japanese winter. So what’s not to like? Maybe it’s to do with the fact that I feel no more involved than with the hapless sailors about to be engulfed by Hokusai’s Great Wave in the famous print. Even more than in Part 1, these people feel like puppets.

Chapters 27-35
Half-way through Part 3, stuff is suddenly happening, a lot of it in places where nothing has happened for decades, if not centuries. As in Part 2, Mitchell shifts location and point of view chapter by chapter, and there’s a first as the section opens. We get a full chapter of the everyday experiences of Fischer’s slave, told in the first person and giving us insights not only into the sadistic German (we’ll come back to him) but into European attitudes in general. In a chapter featuring another sadist, Enomoto, we’re given information that seems to confirm Uzaemon’s death (unless Mitchell is planning an even cornier trick than ever); and all we know about Orito is what we found out before his abortive rescue attempt: she’s agreed to be the sisters’ midwife, which is all Enomoto really wanted from the start.

But these isolated Japanese chapters aren’t where the stuff is happening, and in fact we’re almost always with European characters. There’s a new thread that begins on an English frigate, where Captain Penhaligon represents the historical inevitability that Mitchell has been hinting at almost since the start. Japan’s isolationism just won’t do, as we’ve seen through the advances in medicine which all derive from Europe, and from the uneasy debates the Japanese councillors have been having. And the Dutch East India Company won’t do either: we’re not at all surprised that the company has gone bankrupt on the very New Year’s Day we spent on Dejima in Part 2. You can’t run a company – just as the Japanese can’t run a country – on cronyism and graft.

But Penhaligon is also a Brit, so he isn’t interested in historical sweep. All he wants, like everybody else in this book – venality being a given in historical fiction in the first decade of the 21st Century – is to make some money. He takes Van Cleef and the hated Fischer hostage and makes them an offer that Fischer at least finds he can’t refuse: to go back to Dejima and explain that they have no choice but to accept a change of management. The Company’s former employees will all get paid, and they will be taken to the staging-post of their choice when they’ve served two years. Fischer puts all this to the men, who have been led by Jacob for the 24 hours of his stay on the frigate. What could be fairer?

At the end of this section Van Oet, the streetwise employee Jacob once caught cheating at cards, comes to see Jacob and persuades him it must be a scam. Penhaligan needs the Dutch, because Japanese interpreters know no English. But once they have their foot in the door, once the Japanese learn how to deal directly with the real masters – i.e. in approximately the two years Fischer has dangled before them – the Dutch will be surplus to requirements and will no doubt be pressed into a life of de facto slavery.

I want to get on, but I’ll just list a few things that run through this section. Translations – including the endless possibilities for misinterpretation now that we’ve got three languages on the go – and Jacob’s emergence as a key player: he lived for four years in London, and he’s taught himself Japanese to be able to translate the dreaded scroll…. The complacent certainties of patriotism and the colonial mindset. Dreams and a rather tentative attempt at magic realism: at least three characters have seen a grey cat, and other animals which may or may not speak, or people from their past lives who are either dead or thousands of miles away. And stories: everybody tells them, to present their preferred version of themselves or of other people…. All to remind us, I guess, that Mitchell isn’t presenting this as reality, but his own take on the floating world.

19 October
Chapter 36 to the end…
…or should that be ends, plural? In the final two chapters Mitchell leaps forward eleven years, then another six, then decade after decade until we’re attending Jacob’s present-tense death. I can’t think of a single reason for this except to bring it home that the continuous present of the whole novel has been a device to suggest immediacy in an imagined life that would actually have ended 150-odd years ago, that – again, again – it’s only a story. As if we didn’t know.

I enjoyed Part 3, perhaps because in it the narrow point of view of Jacob’s life in Part 1 is finally shown in genuine engagement with others. His is one consciousness among several, notably Penhaligon and the Magistrate, and his picaresque experiences can only reach their satisfactory conclusion because these others have real lives as well. I hadn’t mentioned Penhaligon’s gout, or the regrets he still feels about the death of his red-headed son in battle some years ago. Despite the big clue of the hair, I didn’t realise that Mitchell was going to make both of these play vital roles in the endgame of his encounter with the Japanese and Dutch: the gout makes him too aggressive – a fact that is only brought home to him when the colour of Jacob’s hair, suddenly released from under his absurd hat, makes him realise he is about to cut to pieces someone very like his son.

You could say that this is no more than clever plotting. But it’s one of several opportunities Mitchell gives himself to suggest that there is hope for mankind after all. He lets the sadistic Cutlipp remind us what chain-shot does to human bodies, and Penhaligon’s other lieutenant is so disgusted he goes below deck in protest at what is being contemplated. Cutlipp’s eagerness turns him into the devil at Penhaligon’s shoulder – one of the stories we’ve heard is of just how evil he is – but the human detail of Jacob’s hair makes the captain turn away from the atrocity. We give a little cheer as much for the troubled Penhaligon’s sake as for Jacob’s.

Another sign of hope comes via the Magistrate, and more neat plotting. Jacob has been dealing with this man during the naval incident, and they have come to trust one another. Since Chapter 1, the Magistrate has had a reason to want to help Orito, as Jacob knows, and so he is the one Jacob entrusts with the scroll-tube. Also, Mitchell has carefully painted the Magistrate into a corner from which only suicide will rescue him: through no fault of his, Nagasaki has been shown to be completely unprepared for a foreign attack, and he is nominally in charge. Also – and yes, there is another thing – the evil Enomoto is a regular visitor and opponent in games of Go…. So: set up a ritual suicide with Enomoto as second, finish off the game of Go, drink the poisoned sake together – and let the reader watch all the power drain out of the nasty man, literally, alongside the noble sacrifice of both the Magistrate and his chamberlain.

If Mitchell is pastiching anything with these resoundingly satisfying conclusions, it must be the the most well-tried technique in the novelist’s repertoire: just when the hero’s situation appears impossible, fix it so that his escape feels like an organic development of details the reader has almost forgotten about. Yep. After the aborted naval engagement and the death of the villain, Jacob has won.

However, Mitchell dangles these happy outcomes before us only to play another sort of authorial game. This novel seems mainly to be about how stories are told, and how an author can play with the idea of what can be done with different forms of narrative… and what Mitchell does next is undermine the traditional happy ending. (Ian McEwan does this, far less leniently, in Atonement.)

So we get those final chapters – which Mitchell calls Part 4 and Part 5 – in which the picaresque story we’ve just read is subsumed inside a life of complete ordinariness. Whenever there appears to be the possibility of a satisfying turn of events, we’re disappointed. Yes, he has a son with a Japanese name, but no, Orito isn’t his wife. Yes, he does meet Orito again (following, now I think of it, a passage in which a description of the scene is rendered, bizarrely, in the rhyme-scheme and rhythm of Auden’s Night Mail) and yes, he is a widower, but no, they don’t marry. After 17 years on Dejima he has to leave, and his new life in Holland is notable only for its predictability.

So, goodbye Jacob De Zoet and your bitty life story. It didn’t have to be like that, and we certainly didn’t need to spend the central third of it inside the stories of two other people, but hey. There’s no way a novel like this – or like Peter Carey’s equally picaresque, equally bitty Parrot and Olivier in America – is going to win prizes: the constant switching of horses mid-stream ends up feeling like acrobatics. What I’ll remember most won’t be the narrative tricksiness, it will be the surface detail of Edo-period Japan in all its tactile, visual and auditory reality. It’s as though Mitchell has challenged himself – a challenge that doesn’t seem at all uncharacteristic of him – to make real what we think we already know from all those paintings and prints. Crowd scenes, swooping birds, wooden rooftops… I wonder if his next novel will be more than the sum of its parts.

One Response to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet – David Mitchell

  1. Mark Elfield says:

    Excellent summary — spot on. Yes, the book could have been a lot better. A minor nitpick: the doctor’s name in the first chapter is Maeno, and the doctor on Dejima is Marinus. Your summary seems to suggest they’re the same doctor.

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