Forever Autumn

14 04 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

From the Observer review in 2010:

It takes place at the turn of the 18th century, in Edo-era Japan. The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) has requisitioned the 120 metre-long artificial island of Dejima, in the bay of Nagasaki, as a trading post. Theirs is the most significant contact Japan has had with the outside world since Portuguese missionaries were expelled by the Tokugawa shogunate, and Christianity eradicated. That closing-off of Japan was described in Shusaku Endo’s masterly and desolate 1966 novel, Silence, and Mitchell’s book – teeming where Endo was bleak – is, in some sense, its successor. Dutch trade on the island is now the one opening Japan has to the outside world – a tiny valve for the exchange of goods and ideas.

Jacob de Zoet is an uptight young Dutch book-keeper, charged with cleaning up the accounts of an operation riddled with corruption as Dutch power fades and English naval power looms. Possessing no navy of its own, Japan is both fanatically insular and increasingly vulnerable. Encountering a beautiful but scarred Japanese midwife who has been granted some limited contact with European medicine, Jacob finds himself in thrall to a love forbidden by tradition, culture, politics and law.

The object of this ginger-haired naive’s hopeless desire, Miss Aibagawa, is bound by the highly stratified social order of Japanese society and then purchased by the abbot of a secretive mountain shrine, where a form of sexual slavery is practised by the monks. A rescue attempt, in the form of a samurai raid on the shrine, briefly makes you suspect the novel is going to turn on a thriller plot but, thrilling as this episode actually is, it rather turns on the murk of politics and the complex allegiances of a feudal society. Miss Aibagawa is no cipher of the mysterious “other”: her own medical gifts prove more useful to her than her would-be rescuers and, as a character, she is at least as fully realised as de Zoet.

With Enlightenment ideas and European corruption washing up to the Japanese coastline, Mitchell creates, in Dejima, a single, dramatic gateway through which to observe the encounter between civilisations from both sides.

Mitchell’s writing is as clear and flowing as ever and the depiction of Japan feels very real indeed. De Zoet is a great character but, as the review indicates, is more than balanced by the representation Miss Aibagawa. The first half of the book is slow paced but then things really do pick up. A hugely impressive piece of work and highly recommended.

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