Monday, 6 December 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell 2010

Dutch merchants in 18th-century Japan.  I once spent two weeks in Nagasaki, and it seemed Portuguese to me rather than Dutch.  Apparently though the Portuguese had gone by the time the Dutch got there.  Dutch merchants, trading in mercury and camphor and European goods, and allowed to set foot only on Dejima, the artificial island in Nagasaki harbour, and not on Japanese soil proper, and at risk of death for the practice of Christianity - the massacre of the Christians of southern Japan was still a memory.  There is an awful lot of stuff in this book, mercury powder and ginseng bulbs and jade teapots and a woman's burned face, so much so that when I started reading it I dreamed the first night of a woman with a burned face.

I am an admirer of David Mitchell's writing - Cloud Atlas was a great discovery for me, and later I read Ghostwritten, his first published book, which Cloud Atlas is a more accomplished rewriting.  I have not (yet) read numberninedream or Black Swan Green.  His is a different voice.  But I am not sure about this one.  Perhaps it is a little consciously exotic, perhaps he is a little too inclined to give his characters voices in which they express aperçus abou
Japan, such as "All traffic proceeds on the left-hand side, so the numerous collisions, seizures and standoffs that so clog Europe's arteries are here unknown" (p. 141, praising Japan not for its buildings but for its roads) and how he does love his similes: "the thought, as true as sunlight" (p. 169, I do like that one), contrast with use of metaphor "how to
combat a painted mudslide?" (p. 245, where he is describing middle-aged women, dressed and
made up for a festival and being spiteful to and about their daughters-in-law, and descriptive bits "a waterfall's clatter and boom" (p. 297) and "thunder splits the rift where the sun floods in" (p. 311, for the moment a bullet blows out a brain).  As well as "Membranous sunlight lends the breakfast table the air of a painting" (p. 377, there's Dutch for you).  Cute

Then it switches from tales of Dutch merchants in Japan, their intrigues, interpreting, a bizarre baby-eating cult and a doomed love story, to a Cornish sea-captain and a maritime battle (p. 426), as the British kick the Dutch out of Dejima off Nagasaki and then back off, by way of Luther (p. 430: "Whilst friends show us what we can do, it is our enemies who show us what we must.". Yup.  Oh, well, the ending was sad (and how did de Zoet make his money?) but what did we really learn when all was said and done?  Good stuff though.  Plenty to chew on.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Haven't read this one and couldn't stomach Cloud Atlas - but Black Swan Green is just so very, very good.
On books - glad to see that discerning critics are putting Candia McWilliams' 'What to Look for in Winter at the top of their books of the year lists. Can't understand why it wasn't on the Whitbread/Coasta biog shortlist - although can, really - it is not a pretty book - indeed, quite unlike the photos of the original Candia ,as she would say herself.