Another Damn Great Book: Review of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet"

I read a couple of reviews of David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” before deciding it was a book I really needed to squeeze onto my slate before the summer’s end. Everything I read was high praise. Even before receiving the Amazon box in the mail, I imagined writing, either in a blog or in a Facebook post, “As a writer, you sometimes come across a work that makes you want to scrap everything you’ve ever written and start all over again.” Did “The Thousand Autumns” make me feel that way? Well, it’s a really good book. I’d even say it’s a great book. That my expectations could have been even greater raises some interesting questions.

One word has to follow another, one way or another. But no sooner was I surprised by the simplicity of Mitchell’s narration than I was engrossed in the plight of Jacob de Zoet, a clerk charged with sifting through the company’s ledgers to uncover the corruption of his fellow Europeans. The scenes, whether aboard a ship, on the artificial island called Dejima built to keep the merchants quarantined from mainland Nagasaki, or in a mountain shrine, are all close and fraught with the tension of trapped humans. We find out early on that Jacob is an honest and intelligent man surrounded by more questionable individuals. And we simultaneously begin pulling for him to make it through his foreign stint back to his fiancée back in The Netherlands. In part two, the narration shifts focus to two other characters, both of whom like our conscientious clerk turn out to be honorable and incorruptible in the midst of unspeakable venality and cruelty.

The pattern of the one good character set upon by numerous bad ones is well in keeping with the theory of narrative explicated in William Flesch’s “Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction.” Each of three main characters performs deeds of self-sacrificial altruism, Jacob by refusing to sign the new chief’s dishonest inventory, the interpreter Ogawa by trying to rescue a midwife from the mountain shrine, and the midwife herself, Aibigawa by returning to that same shrine after successfully escaping so that she can minister to her pregnant fellow prisoners. And then of course there’s the bad guy, the one who’s not simply selfish and unscrupulous but positively evil. Abbot Enomoto is the leader of the shrine which he uses as a farm for newborn infants in an attempt to stave off aging and death. We read on in suspense as to whether the goodies will persevere and the baddies, Enomoto chief among them, will get their comeuppance.

The problem is that once I was through the first part of the book and starting to learn about the shadowy shrine and the circumstances under which midwife Aibagawa found herself trapped there I also stopped finding enjoyment in orienting myself in the foreign setting among all the colorful characters and started to feel like I was reading something closer to genre fiction than anything I’d call literary. For one thing, aside from a hostile doctor, Marinus, none of the characters undergoes much of a change. The goodies stay good, the baddies bad. For another, the separation between the good guys and bad guys is so vast it strains credulity. At points during Ogawa’s rescue mission I found myself being reminded more of “Sin City” than “War and Peace,” especially when the violence and misogyny are so lovingly expressed, as when Ogawa overhears two guards at the redoubt of the shrine:

“Before we was married, she was, ‘No, after we’re married I’m yours but not till
then,’ but since the wedding she’s all, ‘No, I ain’t in the mood, so paws off.’ All I
did was knock sense into her, like any husband would, but since then the demon
in the blacksmith’s wife jumped into mine an’ now she won’t look at me. Can’t
even divorce the she-viper, of fear her uncle’d take back his boat, an’ then
where’d I be?” (308)

By the time I was finished with part two, I was wondering what great truths about life I was being brought face-to-face with, what mundane experiences were being made wondrous, even sacral. There are some human universals worked out in the novel, like the confrontation between venal men and those more conscientious, the predicament of those unfortunate enough to be born to lower orders, the sorry state of women in patriarchal societies. And the story has plenty of poetry in its descriptions and characterizations that seamlessly compliment rather than encumber its momentum. Yet I kept closing the book at the end of the day without any sense of discovery. Learning yes, about The Dutch East India Company, Japan at the turn of the 19th century—which was inconsequential to them as they have their own way of reckoning the days. But discovery is a more complicated matter than mere learning.

At times, Mitchell’s sprinkling of one-line descriptions of a scene into arch and pseudo-poetic dialogue, both inner—denoted by italics—and outer, fraught and ominous, struck me more as an annoying mannerism than a virtuoso melding of form and narrative. He even has a habit of splitting lines of dialogue with dashed explications. “He"—Jacob notices the English captain watching them through his telescope—“believes we Dutch are cowards.” And later on the same page, “Why”—Jacob’s voice is taut and high—“why do the English do that?” (440). At times, this breaking in of the author failed to give a sense of many things happening at once, and read more like one damn thing after another. This is especially true of the scenes in which prayers or psalms are being recited.

“‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’”
…and Jacob still has the scroll, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry
“‘I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff…’”
Jacob waits for the explosion and the swarm and the tearing. (444)

One’s mind goes back to the climax of the movie "Titanic." And there’s even one of those teasing scenes that have the character waking up from what’s clearly a dream to what just might be reality but turns out to be yet another nested dream (343). Prior to this book, I’d only ever encountered these in movies.

I have to stress though that these complaints are all quibbles, and there are plenty of high points to counterbalance them, such as the various points when the several characters tell their stories and jump from page into life. But as a writer I found myself posing the questions to myself as I read, “Could I have written something like this?” and “If had the aptitude and resources, would I write something like this?” Mitchell clearly researched his setting thoroughly, and working out the plot must have been a painstaking endeavor. And this thoroughness and planning make for some magical storytelling.

But only at a few points did I find the novel to be formidable, in the sense that I simply couldn’t fathom how Mitchell had pulled off his tricks. (I don’t mean this as a boast—I’ve yet to publish a story, while Mitchell has been shortlisted for Booker Prizes.) And after the first part, I struggled with a sense that the book simply wasn’t important. Like other genre fiction, its pleasures were more escapist than topical. I’m not suggesting every book need feature or allegorize current events, just that there has to be some greater compulsion to write, which later becomes a greater compulsion to read. That is the most formidable trick of all. As of yet, I can’t fathom how one pulls it off.