Books / Reviews

Sweeping tale of love, murder and guilt in old Nagasaki

by Steve Finbow

“Black Swan Green,” David Mitchell’s fourth novel concerning a year in the life of 13-year-old Jason Taylor, reads like a first novel with its autobiographical backdrop and references to 1980s British pop culture, advertisements and brands. “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” returns Mitchell to Japan, setting for “number9dream” and for the first chapters of “Ghostwritten.”

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, by David Mitchell. Random House, 2010, 496 pp., $26 (hardcover)

However, this Japan is over 200 years old and the location is not postmodern Tokyo but the artificial island of Dejima, home to Dutch traders in Nagasaki Bay during the Kansei, Kyowa and Bunka eras (1789-1817).

Whereas Mitchell’s novels usually span centuries, moving from the past into the future, and contain separate yet linked narratives with multiple characters, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” anchored in a set time and geographically contained in Nagasaki, is a more straightforward historical novel with a narrative centered on actual events — the British ship HMS Phoebus is based on the HMS Phaeton episode of 1808 — with some characters drawn from biographical sources.

Zeelander Jacob de Zoet is a clerk for the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indisch Compagnie (Dutch East Indies Company), working to build up a fortune in order to marry his sweetheart Anna. Things do not go as Jacob has planned. Obstacles, man-made and natural, impede his destiny. Typhoons and earthquakes shatter the awkward peace of Dejima, the trading post is attacked by a British frigate, thieves steal the Netherlanders’ possessions, any Christian items must remain hidden from the Japanese for fear of execution, there is a problem with communication, even with able translators, there is a shadowy cult of monks and priests who are rumored to imprison deformed women, impregnate them and sacrifice their newborn babies, and Jacob has fallen in love with Orito Aibagawa, a medical student and midwife whose face, badly burned in an accident, Jacob becomes obsessed with.

This might seem conservative for an author who gave us the Zookeeper (a noncorporeal artificial intelligence who calls into a Night Show radio phone-in), the last journals of a suicidal kaiten (manned torpedo) pilot and the post-apocalyptic tribesman Zach’ry, but it is far from safe territory — Mitchell rarely goes for the easy approach when it comes to fiction.

An intense and moving examination of two nations economically attracted yet culturally very different, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is a radical reworking of the historical novel. Mitchell’s prose is poetic and precise, with some sparkling verbal gems and observations: “A bat passes within a few feet, chased by its own furry turbulence”; “Rain hisses like swinging snakes and gutters gurgle”; and “The snow is scabby and ruckles underfoot.”

The characters are three dimensional and well researched: from Jacob to the curmudgeonly Dr. Marinus, the tragic translator Ogawa Uzaemon, the sinister head of the Mount Shiranui sect Lord Abbot Enomoto and the wonderfully comic macaque William Pitt.

There are also some extraordinary set pieces, including a difficult birth, an earthquake, Orito’s abduction and incarceration, and the chilling final meeting between Enomoto and the Magistrate Shiroyama. Mitchell, as is his trademark, also includes characters from his previous novels.

Mitchell’s work is often likened to that of Haruki Murakami; one can see Murakami’s influence in Mitchell’s first three books. With this novel, Mitchell moves out of Murakami’s shadow and steps into the blazing spotlight usually reserved for Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

A tale of love, murder and guilt; of Japan, the Netherlands and Britain; of culture clashes and national identity; of the ramifications of choice and the vicissitudes of fate, this novel could be Mitchell’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”