JQ Magazine: Book Review – “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”

"Brimming with potent imagery, the novel is suffused with a generous dose of personal observation and philosophical musing, much of which sounds strikingly contemporary." (Random House)

By Sharona Moskowitz (Fukuoka-ken, 2000-01) for JQ magazine. Sharona is an associate literary agent at Regina Ryan Publishing Enterprises. She handles both upscale and commercial fiction and is always looking for outstanding projects to represent. Visit her at Regina Ryan Books.

A former Japanese colleague of mine once described his homeland to me as an “island of repression.” He spoke with mixed emotion of the burdensome pressure Japanese feel to fulfill their cultural and societal duties and how his lifelong dream was to escape for a year and live abroad. He lamented his kinsmen’s gradual loss of “Japaneseness,” fearing that despite the superficial Westernization, or perhaps because of it, Japan was barely keeping up with the rest of the world. Interested to hear more I pressed him to elaborate. He shifted his eyes downward, paused a moment, and took a long deep breath before finally responding, “Maybe…it’s complicated.”

Complicated indeed. David Mitchell’s historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which takes place at the turn of the 19th century, paints a vivid portrait of a bygone Japan with its rugged landscape, samurai lords and characters who commute by horse and palanquin.  Medicine is administered in the form of crude herbal concoctions and the natural world is generally viewed through a lens of superstition. Nevertheless, those who know Japan well will recognize a familiar current running throughout the narrative. To read the book is to get a feel for the seeds of what would eventually flower into the complexity of modern day Japan as we know it.

The story is set near Nagasaki on the island of Dejima where the eponymous hero lives and works for a Dutch trading company. Dejima has been designated a Dutch trading post and its foreign denizens are strictly forbidden from entering the mainland, their interactions with the Japanese governed by rigid rules and careful monitoring. Jacob’s original plan was to come to Japan for five years, accrue a nice fortune and return to Holland to marry his fianceé Anna. His plan, however, is thrown off kilter by unforeseen complications including dubious business practices, a bleak future and most profoundly, his burgeoning secret love for Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife on the island. Orito is highly educated and hardy, unlike the other women we encounter in the novel. Something of a feministic anachronism, she is more concerned with scholarly pursuits than domestic life. With her ironclad will and opinions expressed without equivocation, one imagines that even today she would stand out in Japanese society. (And due to her strong character she still wouldn’t care.)

Orito’s physical appearance is marred by a burn scar on her left cheek, putting her at a considerable disadvantage in finding a suitable Japanese marriage partner. To Jacob, though, her beauty is unique; he is unfazed by her scar and perhaps even more intrigued with her because of it. Unfortunately, he knows that as a foreigner she is entirely off limits to him. Captivated by her exoticness, he ponders, “to what God would a Japanese midwife pray?”

The plot develops at a somewhat sluggish pace in the first part of the novel, though the narrative is fueled by Mitchell’s fluid prose and stunning use of language. Thoroughly researched and elegantly rendered, Mitchell’s words are often sparse and powerfully simple as if his writing itself is paying implicit homage to a Japanese aesthetic sensibility. Even during the slowest of scenes, the narrative is so delectably poetic that I couldn’t help but surrender to the text and continue. And that’s a good thing: in the space of a few short chapters the plot’s momentum accelerates beyond expectation as the novel morphs into something of an adventure story.

By an unfortunate turn of events, we see Orito taken against her will to a mountaintop shrine in Shiranui and forced into a life of servitude. The shrine, effectually a prison, is populated with former prostitutes and women who are otherwise considered freaks or undesirables. The monks in charge cling to the self-righteous delusion that they are “rescuing” the women and giving them a better life, sparing them from a cruel fate of poverty and dejection. Little by little, the perverse secret creeds of the shrine are revealed with practices so horrific the reader wouldn’t have imagined them in the most disturbing of nightmares. Uzaemon, a Japanese translator on Dejima who is also obsessively in love with Orito, devises a risky plan to rescue her from the oppressive grip of the sinister shrine. And so the tension builds.

Brimming with potent imagery, the story’s setting is one where a “clock’s pendulum scrapes at time like a sexton’s shovel,” “air swims with insects, born of damp earth and autumn sun” and the “human mind [is] a loom that weaves disparate threads of belief, memory and narrative into an entity whose common name is Self.” The novel is suffused with a generous dose of personal observation and philosophical musing, much of which sounds strikingly contemporary. In a conversation between Jacob and a Japanese cohort, the latter opines that although Jacob may feel like a prisoner confined to the island of Dejima, “…all Japanese [are] prisoners all life.” He reveals his deep longing to go abroad, his “precious wish is one year in Batavia, to speak Dutch…to eat Dutch, to drink Dutch, to sleep Dutch. One year, just one year…” Reading those words, I could practically hear my former colleague’s voice.

During another interaction between Jacob and a group of Japanese workers, one excitedly screams out,”‘Gaijin-sama!’…with a grin wider than his face. He holds up a measuring rule and offers a service that makes his colleagues howl with laughter.” Substitute Jacob for a JET participant, the workers for a group of students, and it’s not hard to envision a mental snapshot of the modern Japan we know and love.

Perhaps what I found most intriguing about the novel is that it takes place at a specific moment in history when Japan was at a threshold, just beginning to get a taste of some of the Western ideas which the Japanese would eventually adapt and integrate into their own social and scientific thought. Suspicious of foreigners yet aware that doing business with them is a potentially lucrative endeavor, some might argue this dilemma is alive and well in modern day Japan, though perhaps to a lesser extent. The outside world is at once seductive and foreboding, repulsive yet beckoning with the promise of endless opportunity. In what seems to be a foreshadowing of the country’s long-term fate—a scholarly author in the book named Yoshida declares that “this widely held belief that Japan is an impregnable fortress is a pernicious delusion,” while another character affirms that Japan’s seas are “no impassable moat but…an ocean road without frontiers.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is now in paperback. For more information, click here.