port22's Reviews > The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
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Mar 22, 15

bookshelves: fiction, favorites
Read in September, 2011

It is a love story. About unrequited passions that ravage the mind. Agony of imagined possibilities.

Jacob de Zoet is dispatched to a trading outpost in Japan, the farthest corner of the Dutch East India Company. His plan was to work for 5 years and with the accumulated salaries to go back to Holland and to marry his love, whose uncle considered him too poor to be a viable husband.

Dejima is an island off Nagasaki. Its Dutch inhabitants must not go outside its minuscule territory, confined by an order from the shogun who aspired to ward off Japan from the evil influence of the outside world. The book delves into the life of the islands' inhabitants, the circle of Japanese Dutch language translators, and with the figures of power in Nagasaki from the late 1790s.

The story is rich with passages about the philosophy of the Enlightenment that gripped Western Europe, conveyed in the conversations between Jacob and Dr. Marinus, the only other intellectual on the island. The doctor maintains a small medical academy which teaches Japanese students on the rigors of the scientific method. One of his pupils is a female student with burn-scarred face. It is her, Orito, who captures Jacob's mind and his aspirations are one of the engines that propels the story of the book.

The book is a succession of meticulously crafted scenes, each well delineated. It meshes story, thoughts of its characters printed in italic type, and pleasantly paced by interruptions, minor diversions of a sentence or two that describe the surrounding nature, bringing in context by words of truly poetic quality.

I heard about the book from an interview I came across on "Fresh Air". Author David Mitchell explained how he visited Nagasaki and saw the decayed remnants of Dejima which was part of a small arrangement in a museum. This inspired him to write this book in historic setting. Apart from the possibility of unforced learning of history the book opens a window into mores of the Japanese people. The text carried deep sense of authenticity, and for me it was confirmed by the fact that Mitchell is married to a Japanese wife.

The book brings great pleasure to the mind.

note: I was told by a Dutch friend that "de Zoet" is pronounced "zoot".
good review: nytimes.com
excerpt: (chapter 2) nytimes.com
interview on "Fresh Air" (transcribed): npr.org
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