“Rain hisses like swinging snakes and gutters gurgle. Orito watches a vein pulsating in Yayoi’s throat. The belly craves food, she thinks, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories…the human mind is a loom that weaves disparate threads of belief, memory, and narrative into an entity whose common name is Self, and which sometimes calls itself Perception.” (pg. 244)
In high school I was fortunate to go to an alternative school run by two teachers who loved all things about Japan. I studied Japanese literature, culture, history, and film. Reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell really took me back to those days of immersion into a culture so different from our own. You really get a sense of historical Japan in this meticulously researched novel. I enjoyed the experience of reading the novel and I can see why it was long listed for this year’s Booker Prize. I can also imagine why it was not short listed.
A Thousand Autumns is about a young Dutch clerk working for the Dutch East Indies Company and who is posted to the man-made island of Dejima which is just off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. Due to the Japanese emphasis on isolation, Dejima serves as the only point of interaction between Japan and the rest of the world. The year is 1799 and Jacob is charged with auditing the books of the Company. The novel is in three sections, the first a chronicle of Jacob’s time on the island. He is a pious, practical man intent on earning enough money to marry his love back home. His efforts to comb out previous dishonesty are not welcome and he struggles to find footing in the claustrophobic setting in which he is living and working. The second section is about a young midwife, Orito Aibagawa, who is forcibly secluded in a mysterious shrine high on a mountain top. Orito, like Jacob, is in a isolated, claustrophobic and dangerous situation. The third section centers on an English ship’s attempt to take over the island and trade with the Japanese.
This is the first David Mitchell book I have read and I have heard that he plays with narrative structure and time. However, this novel is told almost entirely in the third person and is a straight forward chronological novel. In fact, much of the writing is in dialogue which gives you the impression that you have dropped yourself right into the middle of a conversation. This is good, if you want to hear the conversation but if you don’t, you are stuck there. At times I felt I was reading/watching a screen play with a character’s interior thoughts projected on a screen much like subtitles. Most of the time it was easy to follow but occasionally I would get a little lost only to quickly regain my footing.
Much like Orito’s loom, the many threads of this story do come together into a cohesive whole. At times, in the last half of the book, I found myself going “ahhh” as things became clear. For example, there are references to autumn throughout the book and much of the important events take place in autumn but I couldn’t figure out what it all meant with the title until later in the narration. I felt like the author threw different strands of yarn onto the surface of my mind. There were strands about isolation, translation, honor, the consequences of action or inaction, power, betrayal, and motivation. There were even smaller strands: the presence of butterflies, a gray cat, dreams. even landscape itself plays a part. At the end I felt like the strands coalesced into a complete work of fiction.
All of this sounds sprawling and complex but at same time the book was also simplistic. The good were good and the bad were bad and the character’s were, in the most part, the same in the end as they were at the beginning. Rarely was I surprised by someone’s actions with one exception. Towards the end of the book, Mitchell puts in a soliloquy by a slave named Weh. Weh, speaking in the first person, talks of being free within his own mind and this becomes one of the most powerful passages in the novel.
…so I created an island protected by the deep blue sea…Mr. Fisher owns my body, then, but he doesn’t own my mind…But I discovered there are problems with owning your mind. When I am on my mind island I am as free as any Dutchman…There I don’t snitch, or scrub, or fetch, or carry for masters.
Then I hear, “Are you listening to me idle dog?”
Then I hear, “If you won’t move for me, here’s my whip.”
Each time I return from my mind island, I am recaptured by slavers.
Much of this novel is about the constraints we live under whether it be an isolated island or a prison-monastery, slavery or cultural forces beyond our control, the choices we make or do not make, even the obligations put upon us by our own sense of honor. Combine these themes with the historical narrative of isolated Japan interacting with the outside and, despite minor issues, you have one very good read.
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