Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

 David Mitchell is a British novelist whose novels number9dream and Cloud Atlas have been shortlisted for the Booker prize.  I struggled to like Cloud Atlas.  I knew I should like it.  After all, it was nominated for the Booker.  But I couldn't quite make it.   As a result I didn't attempt number9dream either.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was another matter.  After my post reviewing The Makioka Sisters, another book about Japan, my friend Henri suggested I would like this book.  (I seem to have had a run on books set in Japan, with a review of The Housekeeper and The Professor being another recent post.)  Then I discovered my friend Eva was in the midst of reading it.  Well, that settled it and I decided to give it a try.  And I really liked this book.   Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years and married a Japanese woman.  His insights into Japanese society enrich this book.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet opens in 1799. The religious and somewhat naive Jacob de Zoet has arrived to work on Dejima, a man-made island off Nagasaki where the Dutch East India Company has a trading post.

de Zoet is essentially an internal auditor, charged with sniffing out corruption and double dealing by the employees of the company who are determined to go home to the Netherlands rich men.   de Zoet also needs to get rich so he can win approval to marry his sweetheart back at home. It's hard to be an honest man in an enclave of thieves and de Zoet struggles against the venality and suspicions of his fellow countrymen, while maintaining his dream of getting rich.

Dejima is a totally encapsulated island.  The one land gate to mainland Japan symbolizes the limited contact between the two civilizations, with interactions between the Japanese and the Dutch rigidly controlled.   It may be the Dutch who are caged on an island, but it is the mainland that is insular, stubbornly resisting input from the outside world. The Dutch are prohibited from learning Japanese, and the interface between Dutch and Japanese is a coterie of Interpreters, a post of some distinction and status.

Against this backdrop of rigid separation of the races, Jacob de Zoet falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a beautiful, intelligent, but disfigured midwife and daughter of a samurai.  Aibagawa visits the restricted island because she is studying European medical methods from the curmudgeonly but kind Dutch doctor.  de Zoet attempts to carry on a covert courtship with the meagre aid of the doctor and one of the Japanese translators who also loves her.  Orito's story takes her off the island, onto the mainland and into the hands of de Zoet's enemy Enomoto, and illuminates a major struggle between good and evil.

This book has it all.  Gorgeous language.  Interesting plot.  Forbidden love.  Honour.  Betrayal.  Morality.  Deceit.  Loyalty.  Treachery.  Righteousness.  Evil.  East. West.  

It was hard to put down right to the end (which was rather unsatisfying I must admit).  I highly recommend this book.

No comments: