The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (published by Sceptre, 2010, RRP £18.99, 469pp)
To the surprise of many, David Mitchell failed to make the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist for his much-touted fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In it, the tricksy tropes that characterised his earlier work – multiple narrative threads, generic pastiche, webs of intertextual connectivity spun across his entire canon; in short, the ‘parlour games’ he has been accused of playing out of habit – are at first glance absent here. It was this jettisoning of the postmodern baggage – and his consequent discovery of an authentic authorial voice, something those same detractors suggest he lacks – that was meant to have rendered the elusive golden nib his for the taking at last. Or at least, that was conventional wisdom: his failure to progress beyond the longlist – along with another hotly-tipped and controversial author, Christos Tsiolkas with The Slap – is perhaps to be considered (generously) a testament to the chronic unpredictability of the Booker judges.
Yet beyond this conventional wisdom, it is worth considering whether Mitchell has actually abandoned all that many of his previous conceits in writing this, his latest novel to engage with Japan (Mitchell himself lived there for close to a decade). Set in the dog days of feudal 18th Century Japan, Thousand Autumns tells the story of Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch shipping clerk who pitches up on the man-made island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki, which functions as an outpost for tentative commercial exchange between Holland and Japan. He is charged with putting the shambolic accounts of the Dutch East India Company’s operations there into order and rooting out corruption within the organisation, and it is through his foreign eyes (and conspicuously ginger hair) that we watch events unfold on the isolationist Shogunate’s “sole window on the world”.
Green, uptight and full of Protestant righteousness, Jacob starts out with the most pristine of intentions – he wants to save enough money during his Dejima tenure to be able to return home a made man, marry his fiancé and satisfy her father’s demands for status and solvency. But like the Company’s corrupt ledgers, things quickly go awry for young Jacob, who inevitably falls – it is left ambiguous whether in love or in lust – for scarred midwife Abigawa Orito. After a series of cringeworthy attempts to court her favour – more David Mitchell, Peep Show than David Mitchell, Ghostwritten – Orito is spirited away to a secluded mountain monastery by the enigmatic lord of the realm, Enomoto, and the first section concludes with Jacob rescinding all hope of love conquering the cultural divide and buying himself a courtesan to assuage his dejection instead (WWJS?).
At this point, straight-laced Jacob’s functioning as the sole narrative anchor (of course, he is simply racked with guilt for sleeping with a prostitute) starts to wear a smidgen thin. But Mitchell does well to anticipate this: the book unexpectedly changes tack in the second section, resolving to the Nagasaki mainland where it oscillates between the stories of Orito, held captive in Enomoto’s sanctuary-cum-baby-factory, and that of her former lover (and Jacob’s interpreter) Ogawa Uzaemon, who is determined to free her. Where the bildungsroman structure of the first act is occasionally tedious, the second assumes the guise of a pacy Kurasawa-esque thriller (which teases us with a heroic denouement which in fact never comes; instead we discover that Orito’s would-be rescuers are spies for Enomoto, who in an emotionally withering anti-climax dispatches a defenceless Ogawa to the afterlife with a bullet to the head).
The narrative changes sails again in the third section, this time taking up residence in the mind of one John Penghalion, resourceful but gouty captain of the British frigate HMS Phoebus. In the wake of the Napoleonic annexation of the Kingdom of Holland, the British have designs on Dutch interests in Dejima, and Penghalion himself harbours a more intimate desire for recognition in establishment eyes (he imagines himself making an impassioned maiden speech to assembled members in the Lords). By the time the third act reaches its affecting conclusion, one is struck not only by the sheer scope of Mitchell’s research in realising such a maximalist geopolitical vision but also by the depth of character he is capable of writing into being. Penghalion, in particular, is a figure whom the reader can inhabit; the decks of whose ship the reader can stalk and whose ambitions and wounds the reader comes close to feeling for their own.
So again, it is worth reconsidering whether Thousand Autumns actually represents a concrete stylistic break from previous work, or whether strands of continuity can in fact be traced between the ‘parlour games’ of Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas and the seeming linearity of his most recent effort. Unlike earlier work, Thousand Autumns adheres to the same narrative space and time from beginning to end. Yet Mitchell’s tendency towards multiple narration is just as present here: no less than six different characters tell their story throughout (there is even a nod to slave narrative with a chapter told from the perspective of the Dutchmen’s Malay servants).
The book is thus less of a straightforward historical narrative and more a mimickry of Dziga Vertov’s kino-eye: it constitutes a refusal to alight on any one character or situation for too long, roaming habitually from one place or person to the next, never idle. This, combined with a soap opera-esque coterie of characters, can be almost disorientating in its immersiveness, leaving the reader grateful for the occasional capitulations to stereotype which do come (the villainous Enomoto eventually meets his hackneyed end courtesy of some poisoned saké).
Mitchell just as readily makes reference to other work here as he does elsewhere, too; he is simply more subtle about it. Orito’s captivity narrative owes volumes to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – Mitchell has been coy in drawing from Atwood before, the dystopian chapters of Cloud Atlas having invoked Onyx and Crake – while the prose-poem describing rural Nagasaki life for pig and peasant alike draws on a positively Joycean national mythic spectrum. Not that such indebtedness makes it any less beautiful than it is:
“Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats / over kits unthreading corpses of cats / over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns / over bath-house adulterers; heartbroken slatterns.”
Nods to Mitchell’s own erstwhile work are also prevalent. There is more than a passing resemblance between Jacob and Adam Ewing of Cloud Atlas, another seafaring naïvete whose unflappable Christian moral code pits him squarely against the machinations of the corrupt and the power-hungry. Another character from the Ewing story, Boerhaave, even pops up at the end of Thousand Autumns as a midshipman on Penghalion’s vessel.
What unfavourable critics have dismissed as postmodern tricks-of-the-light in Mitchell’s fiction the author himself calls his “secret architecture” – the ingenious restrictions he sets himself before writing which give his work its characteristic imaginative breadth. It would be a mistake to assume that such an architecture is not present in Thousand Autumns, despite its seeming contrivance as a ‘straight’ historical story. Mitchell serves up as diverse a box of treats here as he has done before; just a little more subtly. But if the “secret architecture” of Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten was of the monumental stature of a Dubai high-rise, Thousand Autumns is perhaps more akin to Dejima itself – flatter, less florid, more refined, but with just as many twists, turns and intricacies within which one can lose oneself and find new ways of seeing and of reading. A must-read book from a must-read author.