The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
May 25, 2010 11 Comments
This book caught my attention not only because I’ve read and enjoyed other books by this author, but also because the setting is a Dutch settlement in 18th Century Japan. Although I’m Dutch, I’d never heard of this part of history and thought it would be interesting to read about.
David Mitchell is known for his Cloud Atlas, which I liked but not hugely, and Black Swan Green, which I have not read. I have read number9dream which I found strange but enjoyable. For me, this newest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is his best one yet.
The book is about the time that Jacob de Zoet, a clerk, spends on Dejima, an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan, where a Dutch settlement is build. Their primary role is trade with Japan but they also teach some Japanese in medicine. The Japanese learn Dutch because the Dutch, the only foreigners allowed near (but not in) Japan, are not allowed to learn Japanese, because Japan wants to keep its isolation from the rest of the world secure.
I sometimes had problems understanding what was going on, especially when a new setting with new people was introduced. It then took me several pages to have any idea what it was about. Most of the time, however, I had no problem understanding the story, which I found interesting.
Jacob has been appointed to make sure all trading is carried out fair and is recorded correctly in the books. He soon finds out that the other Dutch earn a lot of extra money by trading items that they leave out of the books. He makes himself unpopular by pointing out inconsistencies in trade documents.
Also at Dejima, he meets a Japanese woman called Orito, who reminds him of his fiancee Anna at home in Rotterdam (the Netherlands). He is fascinated by her and would like to get to know her better, which is not officially allowed and very hard to achieve.
I’m not going to spoil any of the story, so this is all you’re getting!
What I liked about the book:
- The highlight for me was when an escape is attempted by one of the characters from a building. This is told so vividly, that I was holding my breath at times, so other people (in the story) wouldn’t hear me and realize that the escapee was nearby!
- I very much liked the stories that some of the characters told each other about their life before they arrived at Dejima. These are stories about orphans and slavery, adultery and being sent away to far countries. They are little adventures in themselves!
- I also liked how sometimes during a discussion between two or more people, we read the thoughts of one of these people literally in between the lines. The thoughts are often contrary to what is being said, which is quite funny.
What I liked less about the book:
- I didn’t find very believable the use of language when the Japanese are taught Dutch. Since the book was written in English, all the “Dutch” words that are being taught are in fact English words. That was odd.
- Also, language-wise, one of the characters uses the word “effing” a few times in one situation. That is such a modern word in my mind, that it didn’t feel right. I know that there are lots of modern words in this book (otherwise we would find it quite hard to read), but this one was a little too modern for me! (“No effin’ ship is what’s what, Davey, an’ no effin’ ship equals no effin’ prize money […]”).
- Initially I thought the whole story was about Jacob de Zoet. Hoewever, after about a quarter of the book, we suddenly move to a Japanese setting and Japanese characters. After a while this worked fine, but to start with, it came as a big surprise!
All in all, if you like a well-written historical novel, this is certainly one to go for!