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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A…

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel (original 2010; edition 2011)

by David Mitchell

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3,4892101,522 (4.09)3 / 516
Title:The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
Authors:David Mitchell
Info:Random House Trade Paperbacks (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 512 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Japan, Dutch, 1800's, trade, corruption

Work details

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

18th century (69) 19th century (30) 2010 (43) 2011 (24) 21st century (33) British (44) Dejima (61) Dutch (51) Dutch East India Company (36) ebook (21) England (21) English literature (23) fiction (505) historical (63) historical fiction (252) historical novel (21) history (43) Japan (383) Kindle (34) literature (36) love (20) Nagasaki (63) Nederland (34) novel (82) read (34) read in 2010 (41) read in 2011 (21) signed (21) to-read (131) VOC (27)
  1. 110
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    An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (bellisc)
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  3. 41
    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (pgmcc)
    pgmcc: Really enjoyable set of related stories with the author's well deomonstrated skill
  4. 31
    Embassytown by China Miéville (ansate)
  5. 10
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    PghDragonMan: The best, and worst, of feudal Japan through the eyes of a foreigner.
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    kidzdoc: This is another excellent British historical novel.

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English (205)  Dutch (7)  French (1)  German (1)  Czech (1)  All languages (215)
Showing 1-5 of 205 (next | show all)
A top contender for the best novel so far this year. A historical epic in and around Nagasaki at the turn of the 19th Century. It is the story of a principled Dutch clerk thrown in amid corruption and deceit by the traders of the Dutch East India Company. And a similar set of corruptions and deceit among the Japanese they trade with, with similar principled standouts. About halfway through a page turning adventure starts. But from beginning to end it is marvelously written and evokes a world I had never thought about -- at the cross-roads of Dutch trade with a then almost fully closed off Japan. It has all the major themes of good and evil, truth and deceit, virtue and vice, most of them playing out over roughly a single year in the trading post. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
Original post at Book Rhapsody.


The Dutchman in Dejima

The book trailer shows us a ship sailing slowly over the specious seas of The Land of a Thousand Autumns. Seagulls fly over the sea foam eternally reaching for a kiss of the clouds’ cheeks. The clouds languidly move aside to unveil the quaint island of Dejima, the sole gateway between Europe and Japan.

The little community of European traders and interpreters, spies and servants, is the anchor of this novel. This, and the interaction with the Japanese and their culture during the Edo period, becomes Jacob de Zoet’s thousand autumns.

Saturday, October 18th of the year 1800 is calm and blue.

Starlings fly in nebulae: like a child in a fairy-tale, Jacob longs to join them.

Or else, he daydreams, let my round eyes become nomadic ovals...

West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds.

...my pink skin turn dull gold; my freakish hair, a sensible black...

From an alleyway, the clatter of a night-cart threatens his reverie.

...and my boorish body become one of theirs ... poised and sleek.

Eight liveried horses proceed along a thoroughfare. Theirs hoofs echo.

How far would I get, Jacob wonders, if I ran, hooded, through the streets?

...up through rice terraces, up to the folded mountains, the folds within folds.

The novel is divided into three parts. If I attempt to summarize all three, I might end up spoiling everything so I’ll settle with the first. The eponymous hero sails to Dejima, an artificial island near Nagasaki. He does so to make more money so that he could marry the woman he loves back at Netherlands. As a clerk, he is given the nasty job of examining the accounts of the shipping company that he works for. While going about this tedious task that forebodes corruption and betrayal, Jacob de Zoet, incorruptible and pious, falls in love, in spite of the other woman back at home, with the Japanese midwife Orito Aibagawa.

Orito Aibagawa will eat up most of the second part of the novel, but I’ll keep my promise; I’ll stop now.

If one reads David Mitchell’s books in the order that they were published, one might be surprised at the genre shifts. From the structure-bender Cloud Atlas, to the intimate and semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, and now to the grand and historical Thousand Autumns, one can either be unseated because of the transitions from one novel to the next or fascinated with the thought of the things that the author can still do.

A clear change in this novel’s narrative from the earlier ones is the controlled writing. Rarely does one read a lengthy paragraph about anything, and this mostly happens when a character is speaking. And when they do speak or think, the words are interrupted so often that there is a staccato of lyrical precision that makes one tempted to read the text aloud to appreciate the beat.

Yes, the novel’s structure is yet the most straightforward among Mitchell’s five novels. It can also be easily identified as historical fiction, what with relaying of trading details between Japan and Netherlands of the late 18th century. But this is not as simple as its straightforwardness because the complexity lies on, as mentioned above, the restraint writing and the grand cast of characters, ranging from Dutch employees, Japanese officials and interpreters, Malay slaves, British sailors, and even a simian loverboy.

The novel’s fundamental premise, colonizing Europeans encountering the reclusive Japanese, unfurls a number of subplots with their corresponding themes, namely greed, power, lust, corruption, betrayal, faith, religion, science, war, slavery, culture, globalization, isolation, enlightenment, love, solitude, et cetera. One cannot help but wonder how all these things are going to be framed within a single novel about a Dutch clerk exiled in Japan for nearly two decades.

Did Mitchell deliver this time? Admittedly, this is not an easy book to read. One needs patience to plod through the chapters filled with character portraits, plot builders, back stories, and cliffhangers. Ultimately, it is a story about the good versus the evil. Characters are straightly cast into either side. Is this character with Jacob de Zoet or is this character against him?

I’ve read this with a number of book club friends, and we have agreed that there’s the theme of fortune reversal pervading the story. The bad guys initially win, the good are downtrodden. At the end, you know what happens? Oh, there are different things, but I’d rather not say. Just take my advice: lose yourself in the novel. If you have any expectations, set them aside. Read it slowly, especially the last two chapters.

And since I’ve finished reading all the Mitchell novels, I can’t help expecting more wonderful novels from him. Take a look at this video. Writing is a job that he would gladly do in his lifetime, and reading him is a delight in mine.

Reviews from book buddies:

Bennard’s review
Monique’s review
Mae doesn’t review ( )
  angusmiranda | Jun 10, 2014 |
David Mitchell has a true talent for building immense and intricate worlds and painting them layer by layer with the subtlest details. By breaking away from the action to survey from a distance, or pausing to describe a dog who has wandered onto the scene, he lets the story unfold naturally and with cinematic richness. ( )
  emilyingreen | May 28, 2014 |
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was not an easy read, but it was worth it. The historical details were very much appreciated and I learned a good deal about Japanese isolationism at the turn of the 19th century. The issues related to translation were interesting and added a layer to the story. I enjoyed the parts relating both to trade and to midwifery and medical care and education of the period. While the bad guy was a bit too bad to be believable and the main female protagonist was a little too good to be true, the main male protagonist was believably flawed and good-at-heart. ( )
  kimreadthis | May 25, 2014 |
In many ways, this is a conventional historical novel with a lot of narrative push. It's hard to put down, a quality that generally puts me on guard. The story proceeds in linear fashion, after a brief introduction to Orito the midwife, with the arrival in 1799 of clerk Jacob de Zoet at Dejima, a Dutch East Indies Company trading outpost on an island in Nagasaki harbor. The novel ends with the death of Jacob de Zoet, approximately 40 years later, and approximately 20 years after his return to the Netherlands. The novel is fairly static in its location as well. Except at the end (and this section is brief), all events take place in Dejima, on board ship just offshore, nearby in Nagasaki proper or in or near Mount Shiranui Shrine. Although the third person narration shifts, all points of view belong to the same story, primarily that of Jacob de Zoet (this is also a story about European colonialism at the turn of the 19th century, as well as the story of Japan of the same epoch). Certainly, it's a meditation on power, hierarchical social and economic structures, and the foolish & dangerous human tendency to seek immortality "by any means necessary." The game of go played between Magistrate Shiroyama and Lord Abbot Enomoto is never-ending. Like with the affairs of men (& I use "men" here advisedly), there is always another move to be made, until the game ends, or is abandoned. Morality plays little to no part in this. Integrity & courage are rare qualities of character, only allowed for in special circumstances for most men, yet, when they do occur, they make art as beautiful as the white moth landing on a black pebble on the go board.
Although conventional in its structure, the novel is full of Mitchell's signature touches. The story is set in Japan after all. There is a tale of seafaring colonialism. There is a bizarre & bloody pseudo-mystical cult, reminiscent of, although not quite as graphically portrayed as, the Yakuza criminal gangs in number9dream who commit murder by bowling ball & sell body parts extracted from unwilling donors. Or the cult follower of His Serendipity featured in Ghostwritten who bombed the Tokyo subway with sarin gas in 1995, an acolyte inculcated with belief in an alpha-quotient.
My biggest disappointment with this novel was Mitchell's decision not to fully develop the one prominent female character, the midwife Orito. She must be seen as a very compelling woman, because at least three men are either in love with her or obsessed with her in some way [de Zoet, Ogawa & Enomoto]. Although some page space is devoted to her point of view, the novel still doesn't give us enough about her. If we were only to see her through the eyes of the men who are in love/fascination with her, then the novel wouldn't need to shift to her point of view at all. But since it does, we need to know more. The characters of Ogawa Uzaemon and, toward the end of the novel, Magistrate Shiroyama also beg to be better developed. However, their stories could be told elsewhere, perhaps in a prequel to this novel. But Orito is destined for this novel alone and it should be more hers than it is. In order to pay more attention to the three main Japanese characters, I would have skipped, or at least spent less time with, the English Captain Penhaligon with his ever worsening and much described gout. But it's Mitchell's novel, so he gets to choose, and for the most part, he chooses well.

( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 205 (next | show all)
There are no easy answers or facile connections in “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” In fact, it’s not an easy book, period. Its pacing can be challenging, and its idiosyncrasies are many. But it offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless­writers alive.
added by LiteraryFiction | edithttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/books/review/Eggers-t.html?ref=bookreviews, Dave Eggers (Jul 1, 2010)
For his many and enthusiastic admirers — critics, prize juries, readers — the fecundity of Mitchell’s imagination marks him as one of the most exciting literary writers of our age. Indeed, in 2007, he was the lone novelist on Time’ s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Through five novels, most impressively with his 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, Mitchell has demonstrated flat-out ambition with respect to testing — sometimes past their breaking points — the conventions of storytelling structure, perspective, voice, language and range. The result, according to Mitchell’s rare detractors, is an oeuvre marked by imaginative wizardry and stylistic showmanship put on offer for their own sake. For most everyone else, however, Mitchell’s writing is notable because its wizardry and showmanship are in the service of compulsively readable stories and, at its best moments, are his means of revealing, in strange places and stranger still ways, nothing less than the universals of human experience.
Though direct in its storytelling, Jacob de Zoet marks a return to full amplitude. That means occasionally over-long scenes and one or two rambling monologues. But it also guarantees fiction of exceptional intelligence, richness and vitality.
With “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” David Mitchell has traded in the experimental, puzzlelike pyrotechnics of “Ghostwritten” and “Number9Dream” for a fairly straight-ahead story line and a historical setting.

He’s meticulously reconstructed the lost world of Edo-era Japan, and in doing so he’s created his most conventional but most emotionally engaging novel yet: it’s as if an acrobatic but show-offy performance artist, adept at mimicry, ventriloquism and cerebral literary gymnastics, had decided to do an old-fashioned play and, in the process, proved his chops as an actor.
Now, however, with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he has moved on, jettisoned the cross-referencing, and severed the overt links to his previous books. It is interesting but unnecessary to know that the author has lived in Japan, is the father of half-Japanese children, and has set an earlier novel – number9dream (2001) – in the country. Equally, the fact that this new novel centres on a love story between a European man and a Japanese woman represents no more than the most elementary draw from autobiography. Beyond that, it is a self-standing historical novel, written in chronological order in the present tense, which conjures up a profoundly researched and fully realised world.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Mitchellprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aris, JonathanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilcox, PaulaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'Miss Kawasemi?' Orito kneels on a stale and sticky futon. 'Can you hear me?'
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland.

But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings. As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?”

A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author.
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1799, Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor. Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk, has a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city's powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken--the consequences of which will extend beyond Jacob's worst imaginings.… (more)

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