Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

I love David Mitchell, the British author (as opposed to David Mitchell, the British comedian) of Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, Number 9 Dream, Black Swan Green and now this, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Like Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks, Mitchell seems to write one "normal" or linear narrative in between the time and mind bending ones (someone is attempting to film Cloud Atlas. I think this is a very, very bad idea). That said, this is a good book, but not his best, which is rather like saying that The Magnificent Ambersons isn't Citizen Kane.

This is, to a certain extent (which looking back over my blog is a phrase I use too much), a historical romance set at the very end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th on an artificial trading island off the coast of Nagasaki. Mitchell lived in Japan for many years and is very familiar with the culture.

It is both a love story and a historical story--describing pretty factually as far as I have researched a true incident that took place in 1808. An English ship attempted to take the Dutch trading post by force and open Nagasaki to English trade. This was in part because the Dutch trading empire was in taters--the famous Dutch East India company had gone bankrupt, and Holland itself was occupied by Napoleon's army. The British ship failed, the lone Dutch port staggered on until Holland recovered and Japan was only finally opened by force when Perry sailed in in the 1850's.

That said, it is better when it is a love story. There is also a side line story which kept reminding me of The Name of the Rose, although they are not really similar, except that they both take place in Abbeys where some terrible things are going on.

Mitchell is a master at placing the person in time. The first section is a slow day-to-day of life in the tiny port (something like the size of a football field, as far as I can gauge, fan shaped with three warehouses, a main residence, lesser residences and an infirmary, perhaps 20 people all told, counting slaves) through the eyes of a young honest clerk, Jacob. Jacob falls in love with the slightly disfigured daughter of a Samurai doctor who is studying with the port's Doctor. Dutch studies became a staple of Nagasaki for many years. Whether she returns his love is a matter of conjecture throughout the book, so it is tragic, unrequited love, which sets in motion a variety of other things. The second half concerns Miss Aibagawa after her father dies and she is forced to retire to an Abbey despite or because of her skill as a mid-wife. The third part is about the British attempt. And in the last 5 pages we learn about the rest of Jacob's life--some thirty years back in Holland.

It is something of a let down, and that is unfortunate. Had it remained more of a character study I would actually think it better. Perhaps the last thirty years only take five pages, because the real part of Jacob's life is in those few years at the port of Nagasaki. Like the moment in Joyce's The Dubliners when the protagonist realizes that his wife is still in love with her dead young man.

No culture comes out unscathed. The lone American is a beastly captain who knows the way to deal with the "slave problem." It is one of Mitchell's few heavy handed missteps that EVERY time the American captain speaks of the lesser races and bringing civilization he does something particularly disgusting like pick his nose, fart or belch or examine the contents of his teeth. The Dutch are corrupt, the English arrogant, and the Japanese willfully blind--treasuring their sacred isolated culture over all else (detailed brilliantly in Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures about the Perry landing.) Locked into their code of honor which requires suicide to appease petty crimes. It was a pivotal time in the history of Japan, as the western inventions, such as the gun rendered Samurai little more than civil servants, but still required them to maintain a status that they could not afford, and prohibited the rise of the merchant class who had the money.

But it is in the private stories of the lower orders that we really learn about this time--of the press ganging that brought most of them out, of orphanages out of Dickens and abusive relatives. Of the promise of wealth in the east Indies that most of them will never see, instead spending the rest of their lives half a world away from all they know. No wonder then that they are so cruel and so incapable of empathy for anyone else.

"Act, implores the Ghost of Future Regret, I shan't give you another
chance...Damned fool, groans the Demon of Present Regret. What have you
done?"

"Creation unfolds around us, despite us, and through us, at the speed of
days and nights, and we like to call it 'love'"

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