Dejima, 1799. The Napoleonic Wars are raging in Europe, changing political loyalties seemingly overnight. The venerable VOC is teetering on the brinkDejima, 1799. The Napoleonic Wars are raging in Europe, changing political loyalties seemingly overnight. The venerable VOC is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Dutch East Indies is about to fall into British hands. Japan has been isolated from the world for more than a hundred years.
This book seems like a conventional historical fiction at first --- the premise sounds similar to An Insular Possession. And hasn’t Japan been done to death with Shogun and Memoirs of a Geisha? But right on from the second sentence, in which “a cacophony of frogs detonates” in a Nagasaki rice field, we are given an inkling that this is not the same old thing. Mitchell retains the full trappings of the genre: the meticulous research*, regurgitated through action and dialogue, the setting up of an exotic location, the gruesome surgeries, period stereotypes, and even a farcical incident involving a particularly embarrassing medical demonstration. But it isn’t a James Clavell, or even a Patrick O’Brian (however, more on this later).
The narrative in the first part, which takes place almost exclusively on Dejima, the claustrophobic, man-made island where Jacob de Zoet and his fellow traders are quartered/detained, is mainly from the point of view of the foreigners, Dutch, Prussian, Irish and Indonesian. The Japanese characters speak in a stilted language and their motives are for the most part seemed inscrutable. Haiku-like snippets pepper the narrative, and at their best they work like dots in a pointillist painting. De Zoet is being taken to Nagasaki to bow before the Shogun’s Magistrate:
“There is a row of stone idols: twists of papers tied to a plum tree.
The palanquins pass over an embanked river: the water stinks.
Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.”
There are other narrative quirks that will either astound or exasperate, depending on your literary taste, but I love them. Not every single one of them works, but they are often startling, refreshingly inventive and kept me on my reading toes.
Mitchell is also an accomplished ventriloquist, with an exquisite ear for dialogue, and a keen understanding of the perils (and sometimes unintentional hilarity) of the interpreter’s trade, no doubt drawn from his personal experience in Japan. I like how he subtly illuminates the different points of view, Japanese and foreign, and shows us how much is lost in translation, intentionally or otherwise. This fascination with languages and words, especially the hybrid language that different peoples invented to communicate with each other, reminds me of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies --- although it must be said that Ghosh’s linguistic experiments is much more extreme than Mitchell’s.
The first part anchors the story firmly on the bedrock of history, or at least the illusion of it. Yet just as you begin to get comfortable, the story morphs into a macabre thriller replete with sinister monks and sword-wielding samurais. And Mitchell does this effortlessly, changing gear with a sure hand, and we are in for a genuinely thrilling page-turner. Again, he retains the full conventions of the genre, and somehow even the most fantastical elements don’t jar with the earlier, more realistic tone of the story.
The third act is a fictionalized account of the Nagasaki Harbor Incident, plus the denouement of the second part, cleverly incorporated into the historical events that happened afterwards. Once again, the story takes another turn, this time into the realm of nautical historical fiction, with a nod to Patrick O’Brian’s The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Novels.
Mitchell dons an impressive number of literary hats here, but what ultimately makes this book so awesome is its wonderfully rich and inventive prose, its moving evocation of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, and above all, the palpable sense of the mystery and ephemerality of human existence that infuses it.
“The truth of a myth…is not in its words but its patterns.”
1. The slave Weh’s narrative
If Mitchell intends the slave Weh to come from the Indonesian island of Weh, he should not have made him a kava-drinking animist. Weh islanders were Muslim Acehnese and Minangs, not animists, and they most surely didn’t drink kava (which is a Polynesian instead of an Indonesian habit). Perhaps Mitchell was thinking of Nias, another nearby island whose inhabitants were animists well into the 20th century. And they didn’t drink Kava either. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weh_Island}
2. The use of the word ‘doubloon’
“…mestizos and doubloons; men fathered by Europeans.”
According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, doubloon means “an old gold coin of Spain and Spanish America” and not a half-caste (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictio...). Perhaps Mitchell (or de Zoet) was thinking of ‘octoroons’ or ‘quadroons’, which are terms for mixed-race individuals.
3. The original language of the Psalms.
“How did you smuggle ashore this rattle-bag of uneven translations from the Aramaic?”
The erudite, multilingual Dr. Marinus seems to think that de Zoet’s psalms were a translation from Aramaic. I’m no biblical scholar, but I’m certain that they were originally written in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Or perhaps Mitchell wants to stress the point that Marinus, being a non-believer, is ignorant of biblical history? ...more
“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
Norwegian Wo“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
Norwegian Wood is supposed to be Murakami’s realistic novel; there are no mind-bending revelations, or even cats that talk, but a strong sense of ephemerality pervades the novel in a way that is at times surreal. There is nothing extraordinary about Toru Watanabe, the first-year student protagonist; he is studying drama, though he seems to have no real passion for it, he is apolitical in the age of worldwide student revolts, a middle-class kid from Kobe and a mediocre student who works part-time in a record shop to make ends meet. He is also at that precious age on the cusp of adulthood when everything that happens takes a looming significance. The central drama of his adolescence revolves around Naoko, the pretty but fragile girlfriend of his best friend who committed suicide at the age of 17, and Midori, an outgoing fellow student who is a tenacious survivor of both her parents’ deaths from cancer. Torn between the two, Watanabe navigates through the haze of love and lust, life and death, only to find himself at “the dead center of this place that was no place”. Yet, for all the tragedies that it contains, the story ends on a note of battered hope, flitting though it is, just as ephemeral as a firefly’s fading light.
We also get a fascinating glimpse of Japan in the late 60’s/early 70’s, when the country was well on its way to become a mighty economic power --- a Japan with bullet trains and hostess bars, where the soundtrack was The Beatles and almost all the artistic references were Western. A Japan full of model students and overachievers, who most often than not ended up losing their souls. Hence the suicides are given a sort of poignant dignity; they just happen to see the pointlessness of it all and calmly, rationally, opt out. Here today, gone tomorrow, like petals that fall away with the rain and are swept away the next day, or perhaps, as in that old Beatles song, the “bird has flown”. ...more