Review | Thursday 27 May 2010
Back in 2003, Granta included David Mitchell as one of the Best of Young British Novelists and since then he has proven himself a worthy nominee. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for two subsequent novels. Mitchell is one of a handful of contemporary writers I unreservedly adore, not least because every novel is a brave reinvention of a form he seems to have effortlessly perfected, from the ambitious, avant-garde Cloud Atlas to his endearing coming-of-age story, Black Swan Green. Thankfully, there is nothing self-conscious about each incarnation, yet they all demonstrate an unyielding mastery of language and narrative.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the story of a young Dutch clerk, compelled to leave Zeeland to earn his fortune with the Dutch East Indies Company in order to marry his sweetheart, Anna. Jacob arrives in Dejima eager to prove his worth but unwilling to relinquish his Psalter or his principles. But by the end of the eighteenth century, corruption is rife amongst his rambunctious countrymen and the veiled alliance between East and West is precarious at best. Jacob manages to make his first successful trade with the help of a shady cook, Arie Grote – to a samurai, Lord Enomoto. Life on Dejima seems manageable for the astute clerk. Jacob finds a mentor in Dr Marinus, an elegant renaissance man, who teaches Japanese students Western medicine. Soon, Jacob proves himself to the administration.
Love unexpectedly blossoms between Jacob and one of Dr Marinus’s students, a beautiful but disfigured midwife, Orito, who is also an object of interest to the mystical Lord Enomoto. Beleaguered by earthquakes and foreign interest, Dejima becomes a prison. Jacob lingers, promethean-bound, isolated from his homeland with no promise of a passage home, as rumours abound of the collapse of the Dutch East Indies Company; unable to penetrate into the interior of Japan, ‘the land of a thousand autumns’, to save the woman he loves.
Not content with delivering this epic portrait of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell peoples the novel with an astonishing cast of auxiliary characters. A personal favourite is the English captain Penhaligon, whose leadership is compromised by agonising attacks of gout and the ensuing gruesome treatments, which include the insertion of maggots into a flesh wound. The heroine of the novel is Orito. Defined by her family’s poverty and the scar that marks most of her face, she emerges a brave, intelligent woman who accepts her fate in order to save the lives of others.
At the end of the novel, I felt as though I had been reading a great ancestor’s diary, an undiscovered classic that has languished in an Amsterdam attic. Mitchell’s portrait is so intimate; Jacob, such a good man. It is difficult to express the distance travelled and the many years one feels as though one has journeyed with these characters. In writing this review, I am once more transported into Mitchell’s exquisite, exotic narrative realm. I cannot imagine reading a better book this year.