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David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

I seem to say this quite frequently about authors but here we go with Mitchell. He is a very fine author. This is a very good book. Frankly, however, it is not quite up to the standard of his previous ones. What has typified his previous books, with the exception of Black Swan Green, is the judicious mix of fantasy and realism, approaching but not really magic realism. This gives them that something extra. In this book, the fantasy has more or less given way, except for the possibility of one of the characters having lived several hundred years (but it’s only a possibility). Instead, we are left with a (very good) historical novel, with a goodly dose of romance, adventure, good vs. evil, mayhem and death, all worthwhile but not the usual Mitchell recipe.

The vast majority of the book is set in 1799 and 1800 on (or just off) the island of Dejima, the island just offshore of Nagasaki, where first the Portuguese and later the Dutch were confined for trading with Japan. Most of the people on the island are employees of the Dutch East India Company. If you read the link, you will realise that the company is about to go into liquidation primarily because of competition from the English and, indeed, it does go out of business during the course of the novel. The Dutch are firmly kept on Dejima and are only occasionally allowed on the Japanese mainland and then only by invitation and only for a special purpose. The Japanese come onto the island to act as interpreters (the Dutch are forbidden to learn Japanese), as officials, e.g. to inspect goods for such items as smuggled Christian artefacts (strictly forbidden) and other contraband, and, of course, concubines. The doctor has been allowed to teach some Japanese students Western medicine, so they come on for that purpose.

At the start of the novel, a new regime is about to land in Dejima (from Batavia). Unico Vorstenbosch has been appointed Chief Resident (his predecessor having died). He is accompanied by Jacob de Zoet, an honest Dutch burger from Domburg. De Zoet’s job is to determine which of the employees have been stealing from their employer. Daniel Snitker, the chief clerk, is the first one caught and he is to be returned to Batavia to await trial. De Zoet’s job is to sniff out other corruption and prepare a report for Vorstenbosch. This does not, of course, make him popular with the motley crew of Dejima which includes not only Dutch nationals but a Prussian and an Irishman. De Zoet is in the East to make his fortune, but honestly. He is engaged to Anna, who is awaiting him back in the Netherlands. He makes his first money (honestly) by privately trading mercury with the local Abbot, who, we soon learn, is something of a larger than life character and very influential. However, even while working for Vorstenbosch, de Zoet tries to befriend the other characters, partially to obtain information for his boss but partially because he is a genial person.

Two people, however, attract him in particular. The first is Dr. Marinus, a very independently-minded person, who is primarily interested in scientific study, very sceptical about received views on such issues as patriotism and religion and very keen to further his knowledge of Japan, particularly its flora. It is he who is teaching various Japanese students Western anatomy, one of whom soon attracts de Zoet, namely Miss Orito Aibagawa, herself the daughter of a doctor and, as we have seen at the very beginning of the novel, an accomplished midwife. Miss Aibagawa is unusual as she is the only Japanese woman allowed into Dejima who is not a courtesan. However, she has a burn mark on her face (caused, as we later learn, by hot oil) which makes her less attractive for marriage. She is very keen to learn Western medicine. De Zoet, despite his engagement, is attracted to her. Much of the novel will be about his attempt to woo her (something which is strictly forbidden by Japanese law) and her fate when her father dies bankrupt).

The first half of the novel concerns de Zoet’s investigations and his attempts to woo Miss Aibagawa as well as the general life and activities of Dejima, particularly their relations with the Japanese. The second part of the novel, which may be the most interesting, concerns Miss Aibagawa’s fate after her father’s bankruptcy and the fate of de Zoet (and other residents of Dejima) after de Zoet’s investigation. That Mitchell tells a fascinating story, with unexpected turns and an insight into Japan and Japanese culture of the period from the Western and Japanese perspective which we would not normally get from an English novel, is certainly the case. His characters and not just the main ones, are interesting as is the politics of the period. However, though I did really enjoy this book, it is not up to the same standard as his earlier ones.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Sceptre