Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

26 Aug 2011

(Novel) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by: David Mitchell

(Reaction) The Sun, Sons and Protegees by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Mitchell.

If Japan is, as one of the characters points out, the land of a thousand autumns, then the title of Mitchell's novel can be construed as Jacob de Zoet's Japan. This is a fair interpretation as the novel is ultimately a story of how Jacob makes this foreign land his own. However, this claiming of Japan does not take place through conquest, colonization or deceit. Rather, it is more accurate to say that Jacob is adopted by Japan through his faith, integrity and steadfastness.

At first there is very little integrity to be seen in most of the characters in the novel. Most of the Westerners are scheming for wealth and glory while the Japanese seem intent on playing games of intrigue.

This deficit of moral character is readily seen in the repeated pattern of promising young men ultimately being let down by their older, more worldly, patrons. Thus Jacob is left to twist in the Oriental wind by the sadly corruptible Chief Vorstenbosch. Similarly, Lt. Hovell of the British man-of-war falls out of the graces of Capt. Penhaligon because the former advocates a more respectful attitude in dealing with the Japanese.

The ties between young and old, of mentor and protegee, fuel the narrative of Jacob's Thousand Autumns. Particularly, the unexpected life of one son (Naozumi - the magistrate's son), and the untimely death of another (Tristram - Capt. Penhaligon's son), conspire to render Jacob de Zoet a victim of coincidence and happenstance.

It is the miraculous birth of the magistrate's son by Orito that piques the magistrate's attention in the midwife. This attention is crucial in steering him towards evidence which will prove Enomoto's evil, But when you spirited away the very midwife who saved the lives of my concubine and son, my interest in the Mount Shiranui Shrine grew.

On the other hand, the death of one son saves Jacob's life as Capt. Penhaligon sees in his Dutch figure the spectre of Tristram, De Zoet removes his hat; his hair is as copper, untameable, bedraggled... and Penhaligon sees Tristram, his beautiful, one-and-only red-haired son, waiting for death....

Taken together the disparate events of the birth of Naozumi and the death of Tristram both propel the narrative to its conclusion. Much is made in Mitchell's novel about the ability of seemingly random events to produce a coherent (ie. present reality) result.

Destiny versus human agency (or at the very least the susceptibility of human agency to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune) is a central concern of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Many of the characters tend to fall into predictable camps; those who favor the modern Dutch teachings do not view events as destined, while the more traditional see everything as preordained. Thus, Ogawa, steeped us as he is in European language and thought, describes life as mere coincidence, the weaverless loom of fortune.

This dualism between ancient and modern, fate and agency, is best personified in Enomoto. The Abbot is himself a contradiction, at once an advocate of modern thinking and a practitioner of ancient arts, A respected judge, yes: a humane lord, yes; an Academician of the Shirando, a confidant of the great, and a dealer in rare medicines, yes. Yet it appears he is also a believer in an arcane Shinto ritual that buys blood-drenched immortality.

Yet Enomoto himself does not see any contradiction in his creeds. For him, one realm (rationalism) allows him to see the beginning and inevitability of the next (superstition), Enlightenment can blind one, Orito. Apply all the empirical methodology you desire to time, gravity, life: their genesis and purposes are, at root, unknowable. It is not superstition but Reason that concludes the realm of knowledge is finite and that the brain and the soul are discrete entities.

There is a bridging as well of this theme of fate vis-a-vis agency in Orito. She is trained to be rational, a doctor who views the world through the lens of science, not superstition. Yet even she admits at the end that destiny controls us all, I perceive us as surgical instruments used by the world.

This synthesis of disparate elements is achieved in the novel as well - in a very Japanese form. Strewn through the novel are abrupt shifts away from dialogue into seemingly unrelated impressionistic descriptions of the immediate setting. These quick descriptions of setting (they are always only the length of a sentence) provide an alternating counterpoint to the dialogue as they offer subtle commentary on the action of the moment.


Before the review proper I'd like to point out that Dr. Marinus gets one of the best lines, simple and intelligent, I've read in a long time: The soul is a verb... not a noun. Amen to that.

Now, on to the novel. It's another highly readable outing from David Mitchell. At first I was unsure of the (still entertaining) surprising digression into the untimely fate of Uzaemon Ogawa. Mitchell though rewards the loyal reader by tying everything up in a stirring conclusion.

Particularly good is de Zoet's and Marinus's final stand at the watchtower. In the hand of a lesser writer, de Zoet's reason for staying may have come out as flat and corny. But the reader has, at this point, come to respect this honorable, displaced son of a pastor. When he insists, Dejima is my station., you almost believe that integrity and quiet courage will be able to stop cannon and debris from raining down on him.

Also pleasing is Mitchell's use (discussed in the reaction above) of cuts between dialogue and seemingly unrelated bits of setting in order to establish a distinctly Japanese atmosphere to the novel. There are wonderfully lyrical lines strung throughout the novel in service of this technique of (to coin a phrase), illustrated dialogue.

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