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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, A Novel

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, A Novel - David Mitchell Thousand Autumns is truly one of those magical books capable of transporting you to a completely different time and place. Meticulously researched and constructed, the novel builds a world full of excruciating detail that passes even this historian's fine tooth comb. Fair warning: my review may be biased by feelings of nostalgia from my days as a history major. Stories of pre-modern Japan, especially in the hands of capable Japanese authors like Yasunari Kawabata possess similar qualities that are hard to pin down with words in English - an aesthetic quality that is called in Japanese "wabi-sabi." Good art, in the Japanese tradition, evokes a feeling of melancholy and longing hinging upon the Buddhist notion of impermanence. Things that are more incomplete and asymmetric are not considered failures as they are in the West, but reminders of the nature of life itself. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is pretty much the only piece of Western fiction about traditional Japan that manages to capture that same feeling in the most natural and profound ways possible. Mitchell definitely does his homework.

Young Jacob de Zoet is bound for Dejima - a small, artificial isle created in Nagasaki's harbor as a trading concession to foreigners that the Japanese empire uses to contain the influence of Christian missionaries and political threats that foreigners with new ideas tend to bring into countries when first contact is made. Trade with the Portuguese, who brought some of the first Christian missionaries to Japan in the 16th century, taught the empire how destabilizing a technological and socio-cultural impact foreigners could have on the immensely traditional people. de Zoet is tasked with outing corruption in the Dutch East India company officials left in charge of the warehouses on Dejima as part of a five year tour of the Orient to seek his fortunes and win the hand of his beloved Anna. Anna's father will only consent to their marriage if Jacob's financial prospects make him a good match for the family's honor and name. Things take a rather unexpected turn shortly after Jacob glances Aibagawa Orito, a young woman with striking features studying Dutch medicine to improve her midwifery under the Dutch doctor of Dejima, Lucas Marinus. What unfolds is a rather poignant story of longing, cultural exchange, friendship, betrayal, politics, mysticism and religion that is masterfully balanced as a slice of historical life that is altogether (for the most part) plausible.

Mitchell's full power as an author and storyteller can be measured by the degree to which you find yourself as a reader lamenting and longing for the reunion of characters separated by cultural and social gulfs and the tension you feel from the precarious situations the characters find themselves in. The world of 18-19th century Japan is a strange one for modern audiences. A cloistered kingdom with strange practices that seldom resembles the thoroughly westernized culture that most Americans or Europeans might see superficially in news stories or movies of Japan. The period and the setting evoke a powerful sense of wanderlust and adventure that no doubt aptly describes the national moods and sentiments of many European nationalities seeing profit and opportunity for a better life unfolding before them in that particular century. Travelogues and diaries were in vogue throughout Europe as strange tales seeped back from lands that might as well have been other planets for all their strangeness and wonder. Mitchell captures it all and manages to weave the repercussions of momentous historical events like the conquests of Napoleon and European geopolitics with nascent feelings of national superiority and avarice with a very personal tale of survival, freedom and love that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. Once again embracing themes of interconnectedness and the universality of the human experience under the guise of different names and faces, tying together African and Malay slaves, Japanese samurai and the poor nephews of Dutch reformist preachers, Mitchell manages to tell the story of us and the human experience better than almost any other author I can think of. Four years of painstaking historical research combines with Mitchell's intuitive sense of structure in building stories to make an absolutely wonderful experience.

If you want a story to invest in emotionally or if you just want a sense of adventure and mystery in a place far, far away, Mitchell's latest book is for you. Warning: it leaves you feeling with a bit of a void when you're done - but then, that's the wabi-sabi aesthetic for you. It does have a charm that you come to appreciate and miss because it is so rare in Western literature.