Friday, 23 July 2010
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
In the eighteenth century, Dejima was an established Dutch trading post (and artificial island) in the bay of Nagasaki, Japan. In The Thousand Autumns, a young clerk arrives in Dejima with the naïve notion of assisting his chief in the abolition of corruption amongst the Dutch officials there residing. Clerk Jacob de Zoet is a pious and good-willed man, making him instantly likeable and comical among his otherwise crude and dodgy peers. Although it is his intention to leave Dejima as quickly as possible and pick up his Dutch life where he left it off, his fate becomes intrinsically intertwined with Japan when he meets (and subsequently falls for) Aibagawa Orito, a Japanese midwife studying on the island under the resident Doctor, Marinus (incidentally one of my favourite characters). Her enlistment by the mysterious Abbot Enomoto to join his Shiranui Shrine – through no desire of her own – sets off a series of events which change de Zoet’s life forever.
Mitchell flexes his imaginative muscle with prowess throughout the novel, with different sections of it taking place on Dutch Dejima, Japanese Nagasaki, the Shrine of Shiranui (a monastery/convent shrouded in rumour and mystery), aboard an English trading ship, and in the minds, hearts and memories of many of the book’s endearing characters. It is a tale rife with colour and culture, atmosphere and ambience.
What I liked best about The Thousand Autumns was the rhythmic nature of its prose. Mitchell has employed a very subtle and structured poeticism in the writing of this book which made me feel that it would be quite fun and interesting to read aloud. There is a distinct rhythm which runs all the way through, especially in the dialogue, which gives it a Shakespearean, stage-play feel. There is also a fantastic section which is written in rhyming prose; look out for that, it’ll make your linguistic antennas tingle (a symptom of Mitchell’s usual stylistic genius)! He plays with language; moulding and manipulating words into new and exciting shapes, making you notice and, in turn, think about his choice of wording.
The Thousand Autumns is a beautifully well-rounded novel, sharing with its readers the incredible wisdom of David Mitchell’s imagination, while being elusive and enigmatic enough to give your mind an imaginative workout, too. If you’re an established Mitchell fan (comme moi), it’s a must-read. If you were bored/annoyed by Cloud Atlas (as I know some of you were), probably don’t try to improve your Mitchell-affection with this one – turn your eyes to Number9Dream or Black Swan Green!