Nina Sankovitch's Reviews > The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
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Jan 22, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: great-books

David Mitchell is a gifted writer and his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a marvelous book, a novel of many dimensions and deep with layers of interest, appeal, and novelty. It is an epic tale full of adventure, intrigue, and suspense; a lyrically composed meditation on the meaning and purpose of life; a gothic mystery swirling in ancient Japanese beliefs and rituals; and also a historically rich and compelling portrait of a time and place rarely (if ever) evoked in literature.

Jacob de Zoet is a Dutchman sent to the far reaches of the Dutch East India Trading Company to seek his fortune (and secure his beloved Anna for his wife). He travels to Dejima, the isolated and single port of western entry to the enclosed and insulated Japanese empire. There he finds some financial opportunity but also corruption, debauchery, inhumanity, and loneliness. He becomes slowly exposed to the ways and language of his hosts, the restrictive and reserved magistrate of Nagasaki and his fleet of interpreters, and meets the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and the mysterious and powerful Abbot Enomoto, as well as fellow residents on Dejima, the cynical and secular Dr. Marinus, the plotting Prussian Anthony Fischer, the scheming Dutchman Van Cleef, and an international collection of workers and slaves.

Every one of Mitchell's characters has their own story to tell, and Mitchell tells each one with humor and tragedy mixing to present a true picture of the social history of the times, and of what international trading constituted as the eighteenth turned to the nineteenth century. Not only goods were traded but convicts and slaves as well were part and parcel of the industry, and the destinies of everyone, from most exalted captain to lowliest slave, changed as quickly and unexpectedly as the seas themselves.

Jacob de Zoet tries desperately to stay loyal to the Dutch Trading Company, as well as pious and true to his religious beliefs, while also securing the financial security necessary to return to Holland. Finding himself ensnared in treacherous plots left and right, the price de Zoet will pay for his fealty and his honor are high, the costs being mortal danger and potential ruin, and his ultimate fate is one he never could have anticipated when starting out on his journey.

The tale of de Zoet's journey, layered with the histories of all the others whose fates are linked to Dejima and Nagasaki, would be enough to make The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a good book. But what makes this book great is the language employed by Mitchell in telling the multiple stories of his book. Miller not only captures nationality and personality through his portrayals of characters, but he also achieves a beauty in prose that took my breath away. I underlined sentence after sentence, from descriptions like "For a priceless coin of time, their hands are linked by a few inches of fragrant herb, witnessed by a dozen blood-orange sunflowers" to "the ancient hush of falling snow"; from rough wisdom like "Loyalty looks simple ... but it ain't" to elegant elegies of insight, like:

"The belly craves food ... the tongue craves water, the heart craves love, and the mind craves stories ... myths of Gods, of Izanami and Izanagi, of Buddha and Jesus, and perhaps the Goddess of Mount Shinanui ... the human mind as a loom ... weaves disparate threads of belief, memory, and narrative into an entity whose common name is Self, and which sometimes calls itself Perception."

The beauty of Mitchell's writing, combined with his own considerable powers of perception, and along with gifts of description and story-telling, make The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a unique, vibrant, and deeply-moving novel.
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