Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell

I went into this book knowing nothing and expecting nothing. Well, that's not entirely true; Sam had read it before and told me it was definitely worth reading. Unsurprisingly, he was right.

This story is based in Dejima, a manmade island and trading post off the coast of Nagasaki, just at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Japan, still a very closed-off country, allowed limited trading with the Dutch East Indies company only through this port. The story begins with a change in management; the Company has sent inspectors and auditors to root out the corrupt officials who had been lining their own pockets. Of course this transition has an obvious element of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Except for Jacob de Zoet, a lowly clerk who is both clever and honest. 

The story is not all boring commerce and politics, however. The commerce and politics are enhanced by intrigue, and there is love (towards both the fiancee whom Jacob has left behind in Domburg, and the enticing new-ness of midwife and medical student Orito Aibagawa) and death and even a secret, evil cult. Because it wouldn't be a David Mitchell book without a secret, evil cult, right?

I turned the last page asking how much of this was real. There were parts I automatically assumed were fantasy (mainly related to Lord Abbot Enomoto's shrine on Mount Shiranui and the activities that take place there) but others seemed so real, I wondered. Dejiima itself? The trade agreement with the Dutch? The encounter with HMS Phaeton? Turns out that all of that was based on history. In fact, a quick wiki visit tells me the reason for the sense of genuine truth: "Small details, such as if people used shaving cream or not, could require [so] much time that a single sentence could take half a day to write." Mitchell spent four years writing this book, and I think his substantial research paid off. 

So let's talk about how David Mitchell's characters keep reappearing, like in Cloud Atlas but on a larger scale (between books rather than within one book). I've read The Bone Clocks and Slade House, and apparently Dr Marinus (who Jacob meets in Dejima) appears in both of those books too. Of course, being the literary amnesiac that I am, I have no memory of his character in either book and would not have been aware of his reappearance if the Internet hadn't told me about it. Ah well. I can't help but wonder how many of his characters will reappear in the Mitchell story that is buried with the Future Library. I suppose we will never know.

Speaking of reappearances, apparently I need to read Utopia Avenue now . . .