The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell
In this story about the clash of cultures, a Dutch pastor’s son, Jacob is working in the Dutch East India company and is stationed in Japan at the end of the 18th century. The novel starts off rather gruesomely, with the breach birth of a Japanese’s nobleman’s concubine, which necessitates a stomach churning hacking off of the baby’s arm in order for the child, presumed dead, to be delivered only for the midwife to realise that the child is in fact, alive. Having confronted such horror right at the onset of the novel, the reader has his or her stomach strengthened for whatever might come in due course of the novel. Instead we get the rather tepid romance of Jacob’s liking for a young Japanese woman, Orito, learning to be a midwife, who is then packed off to a nunnery.
The conflicts are between the British, the Dutch and the Japanese, a triad of cultures who live in a querulous existence on a Japanese island of Deshima. For Jacob, this posting is but a means for him to return to Holland with enough money and a respectable position for him to marry his Anna. Somewhere along the line, the plot shifts gear and morphs into a rescue mission, with a battle of sorts thrown in. Did I enjoy the book, the initial chapters yes. What was interesting was the setting, in an unfamiliar culture, a historic era, and the fast paced, almost breathless nature of the prose which seemed to be hurrying the reader along to the end. Questions of enslavement, faith, forbidden cross cultural love, the fury of nature which involves and earthquake and a typhoon. The style is fiercely visual, one could easily imagine this novel as a movie, with its constant shifts of location and tempo. All in all, a book that is interesting, disturbing, engulfing and an evocative insight into motives, greed, desire, power and dominion that rule man, sprinkled in some parts with a fair deal of wry humour that keeps the reader engaged.