Jacob de Zoet is a young man of meager means. He has hitched his hopes to the Dust East India Company- he’ll spend several trading seasons on Dejima- about as far away from home and his fiancée as he can physically be.
What is Dejima? Why, I’m glad you asked!
The year is 1799, and Japan is very strict in regards to foreign interference and influence. Following disasters interactions with the Spanish and Portuguese decades earlier, Japan is a closed empire. Dejima, a man-made island in the harbor of Nagasaki, is the only port of trade between Japan and the rest of the world. Dejima, at this time, is governed by the Dutch. Japanese interpreters, representatives, and process-observers regulate and observe all goings-on throughout the island. Dejima is ripe with spies on both sides, as corruption flows far more freely than trade. Inhabitants of Dejima, on the other hand, do not flow freely at all. Only the Japanese can pass beneath the land gate that separates Dejima from Nagasaki. Rules are very strict; interactions are monitored, formal rules are inscrutable, tradition is king, and unauthorized advances towards the Japanese are a death sentence. All items, mentions, and thoughts regarding Christianity are strictly outlawed.
Jacob has been hired to pore over the records of unscrupulous predecessors; records have been falsified, goods have been mishandled, and profits have been pocketed by traders, officials, cooks, and crooks. He’s an upright and bright-eyed young man, but he’s also a liar. Jacob is a man of faith, and he keeps a prayer book secreted away on Dejima. He also has a not-so-secret crush on a young midwife, Orito Aibagawa, the facially scarred daughter of a prominent doctor. His infatuation tangles his feelings for his fiancée at home and goes against all the rules of decorum, class, and Japanese law.
What begins as an almost diary like account of Jacob’s first year on Dejima slowly but surely builds to, well, David Mitchell going full David Mitchell. Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, Ghostwritten, and many other tomes of literary “what-the-fuckery” lures us in with a procedural diary before sending us tumbling head-first into a mire of mysticism, cults, violence, unrequited love, and nautical warfare. It took me much longer than usual to read this novel; I mentioned it in our CBR Zoom Check-in back in February but just finished it yesterday. Oops! Did I have many other irons in the fire? Of course- but this book has a very slow start. The first 150 pages or so are well written and evocative, but the story really starts to sing once time starts flying and we leave Jacob’s point of view. From about page 250 through the end The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet explodes with color, gore, and hope.
Mitchell’s Japan – both Dejima and the sovereign land of Nagasaki, comes to life in a mire of mud and shining copper ingots. His streets, mountains, shrines, and interior chambers blast off the page in clouds of smoke and steam. His world is lovely, stinking, brutal, sunburned, magical and filthy. His characters are layered, twisty, and unique from one another. All parties are equally disgusted and enthralled by the differences and customs of the others. All characters are more than “good” or “bad”. Colonialism and slavery are (rightfully) painted as evils, and religion of all kinds is both dangerous and inspiring.
Should you pick this book up, which I hope that you do, stay strong through the first bit. Everything that follows will be well worth your time.