Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Knopf Canada 2010)

Jacob de Zoet is a clerk in the Dutch East Indies Company stationed in Dejima, a small trading post near Nagasaki in the closed and highly secretive Japan of the 18th century. The port is effectively Japan's only conduit to the outside world and the Westerners are treated with great suspicion, spies are everywhere and Christianity is forbidden. When Jacob falls in love with Orito, midwife and assistant to the grouchy Dr Marinus, he is pulled into the murk and mire that is the politics of a closed feudal society. Things take a turn for the worse when Orito is purchased by a darkly powerful Lord Abbot and emprisoned in his shrine at Mount Shiranui.

David Mitchell is known for playing around with narrative structure as with his excellent book Cloud Atlas and in this book he manages to create instantly distinguishable voices for the Dutch and the Japanese and when the British, who had been fighting on and off with the Dutch for a couple of centuries, finally arrive on the scene, their entrance is felt as that of an alien nation. His prose is, however,  far from perfect and there are devices he uses which pop-up with annoying regularity. For instance Mitchell likes to describe two things at once almost as a way of creating  a feel of momentum and so there are conversations that take place during a card game, during a game of billiards, during an execution and so on with alternating lines between the different narratives and it's repeated use began to irk me. Also Mitchell's prose verges on the poetic which is perfectly okay but when towards then end of the novel, a description of Japan descends into actual rhyme it is pretty painful.

The novel crosses the boundaries of style, it is a love story, it is partly adventure, partly disturbing fantasy and there is a great deal of mystery to it and the book takes a very dark turn which isn't foretold by the opening chapters. It is, however, at heart a historical fiction and very well researched at that and as with AS Byatt's Children's Book which made the shortlist last year, one can't tell whether the book idea gave rise to the research of whether the book itself became just a vessel for displaying the research. If I was in Britain I would put a tenner on Mitchell winning the booker not because I think it's going to be the best book of the bunch (I'm far too early into my reading to make that kind of estimation) but because I think having been nominated and lost twice already, the judges may feel it is time to reward Mitchell for his course of work rather than for this novel in particular.

It is an interesting book but I wouldn't call it a classic.