The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the fifth and most recent novel from David Mitchell (most famous for Cloud Atlas), published in 2010. It’s a historical novel set in the 18th century on the man-made island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan. During this period Dejima was used as a trading post by the Dutch, and the novel mostly concentrates on the life of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk serving on Dejima for the Dutch East India Trading Company, his turbulent relationships with his fellow Dutchmen, and his love for the Japanese midwife Orito Aibagawa.
Jacob is a man of strict principles hired to investigate the fraud and embezzlement occurring within the Dutch East India Trading Company in Dejima, which obviously earns him few friends and isolates him from his comrades, all of whom appear to be involved in corruption in one way or another. He is also seen as a strange outsider by the Japanese, due to his extremely pale skin and ginger hair. He is a secret Christian (which is forbidden in Japan), and able to understand some Japanese, which again makes him a suspicious character to the interpreters. His life is far from being the happiest, and becomes even less so when he is left stranded on the island due to his unwavering inability to allow corruption, and the woman he loves, Orito, is whisked away to a monastery, which he later discovers to be the home of a secret cult seeking immortality through the infanticide of babies fathered on the captive nuns by horny monks.
So far, so good. The plot was interesting and I wanted to keep reading to see how (or if) everything would be resolved. The only problem I had, though, was keeping track of who everybody was. There were a lot of Dutch and Japanese names, obviously, and I wasn’t always sure of the pronunciation, which could make it a bit tricky to read and interrupted my flow somewhat. I’m still not entirely sure how to pronounce de Zoet – de Zo-et? Dezute? Dazuto? I just don’t know. Also custom means that people are known by first names or surnames only depending on who they’re interacting with, and I couldn’t always keep up with who was being referred to. Aibagawa was referred to as Aibagawa until halfway through the book, when she began to be referred to as Orito. Similarly, Ogawa is also Uzaemon, depending on who is the narrative voice at the time. Frankly, there were enough names to be keeping track of anyway, before Mitchell started throwing first names into the mix.
It wasn’t just the names that were the problem, there were a fair amount of characters and so I generally found it hard to keep track not only of who was who, but who did what. There is a list of principal characters helpfully included at the back of the book, but it’s a list broken down into Europeans, Slaves, Japanese etc., whereas I was struggling with things like who was the Dutch man suffering from kidney stones, which one was Irish, who was the one with the wife everyone lusted over etc. It’s things like this that make me struggle a bit when reading, because I’m an extremely visual reader and I tend to visualise the entire book playing out in front of me, rather than just reading the words on the page. I see rather than hear the story, but if I can’t tell the characters apart then I can’t apply a face to them, and it all becomes a bit hard for me to visualise. I found it especially difficult with the Japanese interpreters, mainly because there were so many of them and they always seemed to be in a big group, and I just couldn’t tell if it was significant that a particular thing was said by a particular person, because I just couldn’t tell them apart. It was a nice idea to include a list of principal characters in the book, but I do think it would have been more helpful if it had included a little bit of backstory or filler rather than just their names, because the names mean nothing to me if I don’t know who they belong to.
The book also includes the historical background of the real-life relationship between the Dutch and Dejima in the form of a time line, including some notable events that feature in the book and the real people the characters were based on. This is followed by a sort of mini essay on writing historical fiction by David Mitchell, which gives a bit of insight into the painstaking research it takes to produce a novel like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Apparently it took four years to research and write, which I can easily believe because all the historical details fit so smoothly into the narrative that it seems completely natural and yet an accurate portrayal of the time. This is a period and place that I know absolutely nothing about, but there was never any point in the novel where I felt like I was being bashed over the head with a chunk of historical information or some filler explanation. There was nothing that was included for the sake of showing off knowledge, everything seems to have been chosen for inclusion only if it was actually necessary for the story, so that everything blends and you get a feel for the period without anything making it glaringly obvious, if that even makes the slightest bit of sense.
I’m quite a fan of David Mitchell, I really enjoyed reading Black Swan Green and there parts of Cloud Atlas which I absolutely loved, although I must admit there were parts of it that I really struggled with too (can’t wait to see the film though!) I felt that this novel was quite different from those two, and to be honest it’s the sort of novel that I would probably have never picked up off the shelf if it didn’t have David Mitchell’s name attached to it. But as a foray into something that I wouldn’t normally have read, it was all quite enjoyable and I looked forward to a good read of it during my lunch hour to break up the monotony of work. I think a couple of David Mitchell’s other novels have been set in Japan too, all based on his own time living there, and I’ll probably be tempted to give them a go too now, whereas I might not have done before.