Sunday, September 12, 2010

Page 34: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell is a literary work of historical fiction that is set in Japan in the early nineteenth century.  Jacob de Zoet comes to Dejima, a small Dutch East India Company trading post on an island adjacent to Nagasaki, in 1799.  He is a clerk whose superiors want him to inventory the vast quantities of merchandise found in the various warehouses, as well as discover how much has been stolen due to the corruption of those assigned to oversee the trading operations.

The huge cast of characters includes his fellow Dutchmen, foreigners hired by the Dutch to work at the trading post, and the various Japanese they interact with while there.  The Japanese include interpreters, servants, high officials and one very special Japanese woman Jacob falls in love with.  Orito Aibagawa is a midwife studying with Dr. Marinus the company physician. Jacob, even though he is engaged to his fiance back in Holland, falls madly in love with her.  Unfortunately for Jacob, his love must cross the very strict barriers established by the Japanese for relationships with foreigners.  The lessons Dr. Marinus teaches the Japanese students are a fascinating aspect of this novel.  There is plenty of other material in the story that includes detailed descriptions of Japanese culture during the period.  Japan was still a feudal society at the time, and Mitchell portrays the relationships between rulers and subjects, and within classes quite well.

Jacob soon learns to be wary of everyone until he decides who he is able to trust, those he cannot, and the ones he is just not sure about.  Before the ship leaves for Batavia, the major trading city on the island of Java, Jacob is asked to sign a manifest of trading goods.  He is offered a higher position and other perks, but he refuses to sign since he knows the manifest is false.  His own superiors have used Jacob for their own profit and demote him on the spot when he refuses to sign.  He is left on Dejima in disgrace to face a new superior who is no friend.  But this is when the story becomes much more interesting and the plot shifts to Aibagawa  and how she is treated when her father dies and she is sold to the local feudal lord.  She is sent to an abbey controlled by the feudal lord.  The abbey is located high on a mountain and surrounded by walls.  In addition, it is guarded around the clock.  She finds herself in a prison where the inmates are the sisters, and the male monks main duty is to father children with the sisters.  This part of the story includes an escape by Aibagawa, an attempted rescue by her former love interest, and the startling revelation of the main purpose of the abbey.

When a Dutch ship does not return to Dejima the men left behind find themselves in a very bad situation.  They must depend on the Japanese for help while they wait for a ship.  A ship does eventually come, but it is  English.

Read the book to discover all the details for yourself, and what happens to Jacob, Aibagawa, and Dejima.  As usual, here is a review of the book.  This one is from by Tom Nissley:

"David Mitchell reinvents himself with each book, and it's thrilling to watch. His novels like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas spill over with narrators and language, collecting storylines connected more in spirit than in fact. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he harnesses that plenitude into a more traditional form, a historical novel set in Japan at the turn into the 19th century, when the island nation was almost entirely cut off from the West except for a tiny, quarantined Dutch outpost. Jacob is a pious but not unappealing prig from Zeeland, whose self-driven duty to blurt the truth in a corrupt and deceitful trading culture, along with his headlong love for a local midwife, provides the early engine for the story, which is confined at first to the Dutch enclave but crosses before long to the mainland. Every page is overfull with language, events, and characters, exuberantly saturated in the details of the time and the place but told from a knowing and undeniably modern perspective. It's a story that seems to contain a thousand worlds in one." 

Here is another review from Publishers Weekly:

"Mitchell's rightly been hailed as a virtuoso genius for his genre-bending, fiercely intelligent novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Now he takes something of a busman's holiday with this majestic historical romance set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, where young, na├»ve Jacob de Zoet arrives on the small manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor as part of a contingent of Dutch East Indies officials charged with cleaning up the trading station's entrenched culture of corruption. Though engaged to be married in the Netherlands, he quickly falls in hopeless love with Orito Aibagawa, a Dutch-trained Japanese midwife and promising student of Marinus, the station's resident physician. Their courtship is strained, as foreigners are prohibited from setting foot on the Japanese mainland, and the only relationships permitted between Japanese women and foreign men on Dejima are of the paid variety. Jacob has larger trouble, though; when he refuses to sign off on a bogus shipping manifest, his stint on Dejima is extended and he's demoted, stuck in the service of a vengeful fellow clerk. Meanwhile, Orito's father dies deeply in debt, and her stepmother sells her into service at a mountaintop shrine where her midwife skills are in high demand, she soon learns, because of the extraordinarily sinister rituals going on in the secretive shrine. This is where the slow-to-start plot kicks in, and Mitchell pours on the heat with a rescue attempt by Orito's first love, Uzaemon, who happens to be Jacob's translator and confidant. Mitchell's ventriloquism is as sharp as ever; he conjures men of Eastern and Western science as convincingly as he does the unscrubbed sailor rabble." 

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