Shane's Reviews > The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
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's review
Sep 20, 2010

really liked it
Read from September 15 to 20, 2010

I picked this book as I am currently writing a novel about the VOC (Dutch East India Company) set in the same time period, albeit in Ceylon, so my preference is partial to this rather obscure subject matter.

That said, the novel is very well researched on trading, political, social, and cultural relationships within and between Japan and Holland at the dawn of the nineteenth century. In the story of Jacob de Zoet—a clerk who comes out east to earn his fortune so that he can return in five years to marry his bride-to-be in Holland—and Orito Aibagawa—a disfigured Japanese midwife—we realize the schism that eternally separates the West from the East. In Japan, the Westerner is always the foreigner; and even though he may takes wives, father children, learn the language, and contribute to the country’s education, economy and security, he will never be permitted out of his “foreigners only” zone and into the intimate secrets of the host country. Japan looks after its own; even justice to Japanese wrongdoers is meted out by the Japanese, in their own peculiar way.

There are three related stories in this narrative: (1) the arrival of Jacob and his boss Vorstenbosch to clean up the tiny Dutch trading post of Dejima on the shores of Nagasaki; a place steeped in corruption and failing finances, reflective of the larger VOC at the time (2) The story of Orito who is gifted to a temple in the mountains where, unknown to the rest of the world, the most heinous crimes against humanity are being committed and (3) the arrival of the British on the heels of the collapsing Dutch empire. Through these events, Jacob matures to lose his idealism and accept his fate that the best laid plans notwithstanding, life happens.

Despite the elegant prose and detailed descriptions that bring this period vividly to life (check out the opening paragraph of chapter 39 – one of the best prose poems I have read and a fantastic description of Nagasaki), I found several shortcomings in the book. Being a historical novel, the narrative is in the present tense. I found the constant italicised interior monologues going on in the heads of the various characters to be distracting and a rather poor device to provide depth of perspective. The author is also challenged in dealing with three languages – Japanese, Dutch and English – in English. This could have been managed better if he had not lapsed into wordplay in scenes where the Japanese are shown to be struggling to find the right “Dutch” words, but the examples provided are English alliterations: “lewdness” for “rudeness”, “whore’s helper” for “horse helper”, “vocation” for “vacation” and so on. There were just too many characters, and after awhile, I gave up trying to remember names; some names, particularly of the multitude of interpreters, slaves and samurai did not have to be mentioned. The research was overdone and pretentious in places, where copious quantities of scientific and medical theory of the day were discussed. And yet, a Tamil slave is supposed to be talking in Ceylonese—which is a nationality, not a language! That said, all the side stories of the Dutchmen of Dejima that come out in various parts of the narrative help to illustrate a Western world pre-occupied with conquest, profit, cheating, stealing, lining one’s own pockets and dying over acquisition. The Japanese are no better, for the magistrate ruminates that “Japan was once ruled by nobility but is now ruled by deception, greed, corruption and lust.”

Humour lies under the surface of many of the situations, and when mixed with the terrifying revelations that occur from time to time, is a compulsive “must-continue-reading” formula.

I am indebted to the author for tackling this obscure subject in this remote corner of the world, and for paving the way for contemporary literature on the VOC during its sunset years. Now I don’t feel so alone in going back to write my novel.

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Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-4 of 4) </span> <span class="smallText">(4 new)</span>

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Stephanie The language issue bothered me a fair bit as well. Overall, I agree with your review.

Very interesting that you are writing a novel with a similar setting. Happy writing!

Shane Thanks Stephanie - I need to have Goodgle, Wikipedia and the Multi-Language online dictionary open with me all the time - historical fiction is the most challenging! - Shane

Stephanie It's a favourite genre of mine to read. But I can only imagine the work it takes to write!

Heidi Lauren though I did appreciate how the japanese characters had appropriate 'accents' when speaking 'dutch' to the Dutch, but then took on more fluent, personalized speech when speaking to their own cohorts in Japanese...

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