Friday, September 10, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has received a lot of attention lately. It's been longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize so I guess I am actually reading something the literary establishment might approve of for a change. It is set for the most part in Dejima, the sole place where the closed Japanese society of the Edo era had limited contact with the outside world. For much of it's existence this trading post was run by the Dutch East India Company so it is not entirely surprising there has been quite a bit of attention for this book over here. The novel has been translated into Dutch under the title De niet verhoorde gebeden van Jacob de Zoet. It's not a literal translation but I am not going to tell you what it means since I consider it a spoiler. I read the original English version which created the very strange sensation of reading in English about Japanese people struggling to speak Dutch. It is a very unusual book.

Dejima in 1799 is not the place it used to be. Run by a Dutch East India Company that is long past its heigh-day, only one ship a year still makes the trade run to Japan. Plagued by corruption and the uncertain political situation in the Netherlands, which is under constant threat to become a department of France, and the pressure of the British to take control of the Dutch colonial possessions, the place is not nearly as profitable as it once was. To turn the tide and wring at least some profit out of this enterprise Chief Overstraten arrives from Batavia. In his company is a young clerk named Jacob de Zoet.

De Zoet arrives from his home town of Domburg in Zeeland to make his fortune in the east. He has lost his heart to the lovely Anna, who is unattainable for someone from his station. His only hope is to return as a rich man after five years of service. Making a profit in Dejima is not going to be easy for someone with the ethical standards de Zoet lives by. Together with Overstraten he sets about uncovering the corruption that has plagued the trading post in the last decade and uncovers quite a few dubious transactions. Something that not all of Dejima's residents appreciate. De Zoet is a bit naive about how money is made in the east and soon he becomes ensnared in a web of corruption, fraud and deceit. Things become even more complicated when he falls in love with a Japanese woman.

The story of Jacob de Zoet is but one of the story lines Mitchell weaves into his tale. The story of a Japanese Buddhist Shrine and various Japanese officials and scholars in Dejima and the story of an English captain trying to win Dejima for the British are told as well. Historically the novel is loosely based on the live of Hendrik Doeff, Chief of the trading post between 1803 and 1817, and the Phaeton incident (1808) when a British warship fired its cannons in Nagasaki harbour to press the Japanese into supplying them with water, food and fuel. Although Mitchell plays around with the time line a bit, there is a lot of historical material in this novel. I thought his choice to set the novel during one a period when Dutch colonialism was on the verge of complete collapse is very interesting. He drives home the lack of contact with the Netherlands or even de Batavia very well. One ship a year, if one arrives at all. How's that for lonely?

One other point that Mitchell drives home mercilessly is the enormous greed that was the basis for the Dutch presence in Asia. Events in Nagasaki were mostly dealt with without bloodshed, something that cannot be said for the Dutch expansion in Indonesia, just about everybody seems to be out to get rich at someone else's expense. This trait is not limited to the Dutch, both the Japanese and English in the story have some rather selfish motives for their actions. Something that clashes violently with de Zoet's devoutly protestant upbringing and gets him in trouble more than once.

The book is divided in five parts, two of which are pretty brief and could be considered an epilogue. The first three parts contain the bulk of the story, with the first focussing on Jacob, the second on a number of Japanese characters and a third which introduces the English to the stage. Part of the genius of this novel is how he weaves those three stories into each other in the final part of the book. The tree parts each contain a decidedly different outlook on events, with the Japanese part, the one I was least familiar with, as the most fascinating of the three in my opinion. I won't pretend Mitchell didn't lead me to a couple of things about the history of my country but the way he handles the Japanese characters is my favourite part of the novel.

Language is another key element in the book. Not so much the language the author uses, what I noticed most about that is his use of the present tense, but the way the characters communicate. The Dutch are not allowed to learn Japanese (although that does not stop Jacob) so they have to rely on translators provided by the Japanese. Dutch and Japanese are very different languages so it is not surprising that a lot of semantics and grammar has to be discussed. Where a lot of authors would gloss over the problem of trying to learn a second language and just assume a character would become fluent soon enough, Mitchell makes the reader very aware of the problems this kind of communication would entail. When I read English, I don't have an instant translation ready in my mind of course but those passages did make me consider the difference between Dutch and English and how one explanation to the Japanese would work in English but not in Dutch. It's a very strange way of reading. The author seems to have picked up some Dutch while researching this book, he has advanced enough to realize Major Cutlip has a name that would sound very funny to a Dutchman. Apparently it is true that bad language is still the first thing you learn.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a fascinating book. From the very first scene in which we witness a difficult birth (with illustration) to the eventual return of de Zoet in the Netherlands the story kept me captivated. I have to admit the use of the present tense in the narrative took some getting used to but when the story drew me in it was a very enjoyable read. The way Mitchell portrays three very different cultures and the very interesting historical setting as well as the unusual way in which he ties the three main parts of the book together easily make it one of the best historical novels I've read. I may be a bit biased because of the author's choice of setting but I still recommend you read this.

Book Details
Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Sceptre
Pages: 469
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-340-92157-9
First published: 2010


  1. Hm, I guess I'll be picking up this one next, then. Dutch history as seen through the eyes of non-natives is usually intriguing, as often for what they get wrong as for what they get right ;) Then again, not many Dutch folks these days know much about Deshima either...

    Speaking of which, I just noticed you also review Dutch books. Have you read Paul Evanby's novel De Scrypturist? Appeared in 2009: I was rather pleasantly surprised that a big publisher like Mynx would take the risk of publishing such non-standard fantasy by a Dutch author. Then again, they've also done Tais Teng, (although his books are more YA), so maybe I shouldn't be...

  2. I throw in a Dutch title once in a while, next up will be a book by W.J. Maryson. I haven't read Evanby yet but I get the feeling that I really should read it. In fact, I was looking for a copy last Friday but the local bookshop didn't have it.