David Mitchell’s oeuvre, as relatively small as it it to date, has nevertheless covered a range of plots, settings, and characters. But fitting in there, sometimes small, sometimes big, always seems the Orient, and most often Japan. From the Japanese man working in the jazz shop in Ghostwritten to the main character and setting of number9dream, Japan seems to play a role in most of Mitchell’s works. In 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell turns to the island nation for setting, specifically the Sakoku era, but does so from a majority European perspective.
Believing that accepting a clerk position with the Dutch East Indian Company in Japan for five years will land him the woman he desires once he returns to the Netherlands, Jacob de Zoet reluctantly says goodbye to his homeland and makes the long ocean voyage to the other side of the Earth at the opening of the novel. The outgoing company steward leaving behind a trail of corruption, de Zoet has been sent along with a strong-minded captain with the mission of setting things right to get commerce flowing with the Japanese on the up and up once again. Japanese restrictions on European presence in Nagasaki highly intemperate, de Zoet is disappointed to learn that none of his cultural hopes or expectations have any real hope of being fulfilled. From language to Japanese daily life, all are essentially cut off. But de Zoet does strike up something of sympathetic relationship with the Japanese translator, and from it meets the local European doctor who is allowed beyond the walls of the stockade, and through that has talks with a woman that may just change his mind about returning to the Netherlands, Miss Aibagawa. With Dutch power fading in the Orient and English power on the rise, trouble looms in the backdrop, even as de Zoet hacks his way through the rough characters he must work alongside each day. When an English ship is spotted on the horizon, cannon doors open, trouble starts brewing.
Where much of the delight in reading David Mitchell is in his lexical exuberance, Thousand Autumns feels like Mitchell with the brakes on. Seeming to reel in his delightful expressive turns of phrase, the novel appears intentionally restrained, as if Mitchell was testing new, more staid waters. While for other writers what lies on the page would still be considered dynamic, perhaps even experimental, under Mitchell’s pen Thousands Autumns still seems to be written within certain limits—to be ‘more serious’, for lack of a better expression. There are flourishes, but they nestle within a wider, deeper flowing narrative, one that still presses upon the reader a momentous personal import.
That being said, Mitchell can’t resist including a couple stereotype of pulp samurai stories, albeit in highly disguised fashion. Ninjas appear for a scene or two, but they are the most subtle ninjas you’ve ever read of. I expect most readers won’t even notice. There is kung fu action of the three-step tiger fist variety, but that it appears for only the blink of an eye, again, will likely cause many readers to overlook it. Unhidden is a very classic scene of poisoning, but that it fits so nicely into the narrative, again, one may not notice the homage being paid. This is all a long way of saying Mitchell’s prose may have more gravitas than usual, but he still can’t resist locating his old tricks here and there.
One of the main issues (as minor as it is) I have with the novel is the title’s relevance to content. Jacob de Zoet is indeed the main character, but there are several large portions of the book which cut away from the young man’s plight to focus on other characters, including de Zoet’s translator friend, de Zoet’s Japanese lady friend Aibagawa, the English ship captain, the doctor—the novel even opens on a lengthy and impacting scene that has not a hair of de Zoet. I’m at a loss to think of a better title myself, but by focusing on de Zoet, I think the narrative which follows gets short changed as there is a broader spectrum of European and Japanese representation. Or perhaps I just need to look deeper into the meaning of ‘thousand autumns’? Perhaps it is more mosaic in context?
In the end, Thousand Autumns is likely a love letter; a story from the heart about a man forever changed by his time in Japan, just like Mitchell himself. This parallel between Mitchell and de Zoet never overt (one a Brit living in the 21st century and the other a Dutchman living in the 18th), the love appears largely contained within Mitchell’s knowledge of Japanese history and culture, as well as a few winks to classical samurai stories. Mitchell wouldn’t be Mitchell without several parallel stories happening at once, something which renders the title a bit strained. But content is what matters, and there Mitchell once again delivers, making for what is likely his strongest novel to date.