The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The novel that is bound to turn up again and again on the prize lists over the next 12 months .  It’s already in the running for the Booker Prize and here I am awarding it the best-dressed proof of 2010.  Luxurious metallic gold covers, indicative surely of the treasures within.  My thanks to Sceptre for sending me a signed numbered copy.  It’s a keeper, but then so too is the official UK edition.  I haven’t been able to ascertain the  numbers but I’m sure it was a small first printing.  I did eventually track down a first editon – thankfully prior to its Booker longlisting – and I’m looking forward to meeting the author in the book-signing tent in Edinburgh.  But what will I say about his novel?

That I enjoyed it more than Black Swan Green and just as much as Cloud Atlas?  No,  I won’t say that.  I enjoyed it more than Cloud Atlas  and I loved Cloud Atlas. 

Admittedly Thousand Autumns took some getting into as I knew nothing of the time and the setting.  Mitchell didn’t patronise me with reams and reams of exposition.  He took me straight into the story and I had to get my bearings.  This approach ensuring that the exposition had to be broken down, sometimes offered up by characters in less than natural speech.  But I didn’t care – I was captivated.  Disarmed entirely by the details, woven so expertly into this three-dimensional tapestry of a time and place so entirely foreign both to me, the twenty-first century reader, and the eighteenth-century Dutch tradesman confined in their outpost on Dejima.  The cultural chasm between them and the Japanese succinctly captured in many ways.  I particularly enjoyed the humour of the linguistic divide.

Unlike the matryoshka structure of Cloud Atlas, Thousand Autumns is a chronological tale.  Divided, however, into 3 sections with differing points of view.  In the first, the  eponymous Jacob arrives as a young man and clerk at the trading post on Dejima, where he uncovers false accounting and fraudelent practices.  At first the very likeable and principled Jacob de Zoet rises in the tradepost hierarchy.  Ultimately,  however, his is a story in which moral strength becomes a weakness when pitted against the unscrupulous.  Neither does his star ascend in matters of romance.  His love for Orito,  a Japanese midwife, is a touching story of unrequited and impossible passion.  Her story providing a parallel trajectory to that of Jacob.  Just when she is about to achieve success, events intervene with malice as she is kidnapped and transported to a reclusive convent.

The second section tells of  her experiences there; a horrifying  tale of an extreme religious belief, the barbarity of which is revealed only when a secret scroll is finally translated. This section, with its echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, is the most accessible, gripping.  The pages turned rapidly.  Good historical fiction has me rushing to the history books and this section has awakened the need for research.  On which facts, I wonder, is this section based?

Point of view shifts again in the third section with the personal stories of Jacob and Orito taking a back seat to world history.  Dejima is threatened by a British warship and the reader witnesses the political machinations of a British captain, desperate to secure his pension before he loses his career and reputation to – of all things – gout.  More literary echoes in this section to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey Maturin series.  Is it derivative?  It doesn’t matter because this section is as enjoyable as the rest:  the character studies of the good, the bad and the downright ugly spiralling to the absolute madness of the inevitable climax.

All in all a wonderful read.  Two questions remaining:  Can Thousand Autumns survive 3 Booker judge readings and will it win?

I have no doubt that there is enough complexity for three satisfying readings.   On first reading and,  as this review has proved, there is sufficient plot and multiple points-of-view to dazzle and astound.  During the longlist reading,  I’d be tracking symbolisms and other literary underpinnings supporting the major theme of power, one which infuses this historical novel with contemporary relevance. For instance, those butterflies that keep flitting across the page, sometimes annoyingly so, aren’t as irrelevant as they first seem.

The white butterfly passes within inches of Enomoto’s face.

The Abbot’s hand makes a circular motion over the butterfly …

… and it drops, lifeless as a twist of paper, into the dark p0ol.

And, by the way, isn’t that simile wonderful?

What about the character names?  Jacob de Zoet = Jacob Sweet, and he is.  My Japanese is non-existent but I’m sure a little digging would reveal similar insights.  Parallels and foreshadowings – religious texts – Jacob’s psalter and the Japanese scroll.  What makes one sacred and the other profane?  On a third reading I’d investigate both prose and structure more closely.  First impressions: structural balance is bestowed through parallels  and thematic harmony.  So, three sections, three executions.   In addition, the first section shows that  moral strength becomes a weakness when pitted against the unscrupulous.  So too the second.   How satisfying then is the reversal of that lesson in the third, even though it comes at personal cost.   Admittedly though I have unresolved issues with respect to structure.  The contrast between the first chapter with its exceptionally vivid description of a difficult birth and the final chapter with its very bland synopsis of Jacob’s life post-Dejima is so stark that there is a definite statement being made.  The violence and passion and struggle needed to enter into this world contrasting with the inevitable fading away, perhaps?  And those two chapters written as a first person narrative in the midst of 400+ pages of third person narrative.  Editorial oversight or authorial intent? Obviously the latter in so finely crafted a novel as this.  Yet they feel odd and their purpose eludes me.

I’ve just found myself  the questions I will ask Mitchell in Edinburgh and the reason why Thousand Autumns  earns a 4 not a 5 star rating.  It’s harsh but  I’m happy for that to change – depending on the author’s answer of course.

Finally, the biggest question of all.  Will Thousand Autums win the 2010 Booker prize ?

Nobody would cheer louder than I, if  it did.  Mitchell is a contemporary fiction superstar and he surely deserves it. The question niggling in the back of my brain is one of timing.  By all accounts (except mine, because I am possibly the only person in the blogging universe not to have read it), last year’s winner Wolf Hall is the art of historical fiction perfected.  Not that this year’s judges should be comparing Mitchell with Mantell, but what are the chances of historical fiction taking the accolade two years in a row?