Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

David Mitchell clearly has an affinity for eastern, specifically Japanese philosophy. We have seen it before, in earlier works like Ghostwritten and number9dream. Those were breathtaking early novels, inventive and exciting in a way that is entirely refreshing when compared to much of what is produced in Great Britain at the moment. We are far from a golden age of British fiction, but Mitchell is undoubtedly a lasting talent. Those early novels did, nonetheless, owe a large debt to Haruki Murakami (even number9dream, in taking its title from a John Lennon song borrows its trope from Murakami’s most famous novel, named after The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood). By the time he reached Cloud Atlas, though, Mitchell was establishing his own voice. After a curious interlude with the atypical Black Swan Green, his most recent work once more establishes himself as one of our most important writers.

In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell revisits his earlier interest in Japanese thought, but melds it with an analysis of the western philosophical outlook. Set in the closed environment of Japan at the very end of the eighteenth century, when it was trading with, but cautious and disdainful of the west, it focuses on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour on which the Dutch East India Company have set up a trading post. The Japanese remain resolutely insular: foreigners are forbidden to learn Japanese, possession of any symbols of Christianity is punishable by death, no Japanese person is permitted to leave the country’s shores. It trades with the voracious Dutch in a mutually distrustful but beneficial relationship, economic symbiosis. Japanese negotiations are strictly structured around precedent and protocol; the Dutch operation is riddled with corruption. Neither side really understands the motivations of the other.

Thus, Mitchell presents us with a classic clash of civilisations. This clash, though, is much more textured than anything imagined by Samuel P. Huntingdon or his two-dimensional apologists, or indeed by those Cassandras who have been predicting the downfall of western culture almost since the dawn of the Enlightenment itself. The tendency of the former is to see other cultures as shady, untrustworthy, even evil, while the latter enjoy a masochistic self-loathing of our venal western ways. Mitchell points to the occasional truths revealed in these caricatures, but offers, too, a more reasoned and balanced view of the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two traditions.

Jacob de Zoet, the novel’s hero, is almost priggishly upstanding, a product of Calvinist Amsterdam who is employed as a junior clerk and sent to Dejima to investigate irregularities in the Dutch East India Company accounts which might suggest corruption. Almost obsessively preoccupied with rectitude, his only aberration is to smuggle the family bible onto the island in defiance of the strict ban on Christian symbols. Thus, de Zoet’s character is clearly established, Calvinism personified: only the moral law of God may transcend the civil law of man. If this sounds unpromising, de Zoet becomes an enterprising and engaging lead character: his pompous rectitude leads him inexorably into trouble and grief, while at the same time his helpless and hopeless attraction to Orito, a beautiful but physically scarred Japanese woman opens up in him a human vulnerability which softens what could have been an austere character. He paints her image on a fan and presents it to her. He is warned that any liaison between a Japanese woman and a westerner is impossible but he perseveres with dogged, good-natured zeal. He attempts to write to her and woo her, asking his translator, Uzaemon, to pass a letter to her through the intermediary of a servant. Uzaemon, an essentially good man, is also enamoured of Orito, but nonetheless accedes to his unknowing rival’s request. Unfortunately, this act of altruism brings down tragedy.

At this point, such is the multi-stranded nature of the narrative, it is difficult to summarise accurately the fast-moving plot. It covers corruption, romance, humour, derring-do and a horrifying account of Shinto ritual grotesquely exploited by a cruel Samurai lord, the Abbot of Enomoto. It is, at once, a love story, a thriller, historical novel, philosophical study and, most of all, perhaps, a study in psychology, because Mitchell understands that in seeking to understand the philosophy of civilisations it is not the civilisations themselves which must be studied, but the individuals who comprise them. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set at the fading of the Dutch empire and at a moment of juncture for Japan. Ways are changing, things are happening, the world is shifting. Jacob and Orito, respectively a sober but ambitious clerk and a driven and talented midwife, are unlikely deliverers of a new age, but the complex and frightening set of circumstances which throw them together turn them into just such symbols of change.

Because, in the end, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is not an analysis of east versus west, or good versus bad, or any such trite binary opposition. This is why, for the central intellectual characer, Dr Marinus, a close cousin of Settembrini in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and someone who embodies decency, there is no opposite character to represent evil. You might argue that Lord Abbot Enomoto fulfils that role, but in truth his function is different. He in no way represents Japan, or the east, or any opposition to western enlightenment. To be Marinus’s opposite, in the way that Naphta opposes Settembrini, he would need to espouse something more substantial than the superstitious nonsense that drives his lust for power. No, instead of Enomoto (or evil) as nemesis, the opposition to Marinus comes instead from history, from progress, specifically from the arrival of the British to claim Japan for their empire.

This allows Mitchell to provide a more sophisticated analysis of this clash of civilisations. It is not a simple battle between good and evil, progress or tradition. There are good men on both sides, greatly outnumbered by bad men. There is evil and corruption abounding. But there is, too, decency and hope and honour and respect and, ultimately, it is these quiet attributes which prevail. Good will always find its outlets, whatever the difficulties. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, those outlets are Jacob and Dr Marinus, Orito and Uzaemon. Not all of them survive the novel, and those deaths are keenly felt, but some of them do, and goodness prevails, and it is this which is the final, uplifting message of this very fine novel.


Jim H. said...

Wonderful book, wonderfully written. I hope, soon, to do up a piece on the ascendancy of the literary in the historical novel, drawing on this, the recent Hilary Mantel and Tom McCarthy.

Your take on his use of coincidence as 'info dump' is spot on, something I'd missed in my first go 'round with the book. Thanks.

Jim H.

P.S. Perusing your archives, I note we've read many of the same sorts of books. Must delve deeper.

Tom Conoboy said...

Jim, it is indeed a wonderful book. Your brain starts spinning trying to assimilate all the ideas within it.

The ascendancy of the literary in the historical novel - that's a fascinating idea. I have the latest Tom McCarthy, but haven't got round to reading it yet. It has had excellent reviews.

I don't know when you are suggesting the ascendancy began, but you could perhaps trace it back to another McCarthy, the one I write about on this blog all the time, Cormac. Blood Meridian, published in 1985, was McCarthy's take on the western myths. For all its violence, it is historically accurate - the range of source materials McCarthy used is extensive. Blood Meridian is certainly a highly literary approach to the historical novel.

And if we are reading similar books, I'll have a good look through your blog, too. I enjoy a good debate...