The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell


Jacob de Zoet arrives in Japan in 1799 on the small artificial island created for the Dutch traders, the only barbarians the Japanese allow near their country.  Only a few of them can leave Dejima for the city of Nagasaki and only on rare occasions.  Even on the island they are severely restricted and closely watched.  Of great concern to the Japanese was the contamination of Christianity as they had gone to great lengths to stamp it out earlier in the century. 

Jacob is the nephew of a parson in the Netherlands who hopes to make his fortune so he can return in five years wealthy enough to marry his beloved.  Though he is a clever negotiator and a smart fellow, he finds he can't keep up with the duplicity of his fellow traders.  Because he is unwilling to sign a blatently false report, he loses a significant advancement.  He is taken with a Japanese midwife who comes to Dejima to study with the Dutch doctor and not surprisingly, complications ensue.

The point of view switches to the Japanese of Nagasaki and their equally unpleasant dealings with one another.  In fact the fate of the midwife Orito, after the death of her father puts her in the power of Enomoto, is unspeakable.  Enomoto is both the most powerful man in the area and is stunningly monstrous. 

The third point of view is that of the captain of a British ship that showed up in the harbor, planning to take over the Japanese trade from the Dutch (the English and the Dutch were at war at this point).  The captain and the crew are also largely an unappealing lot; the captain is tortured by his gouty foot and seems to be taking it out on the Dutch with big guns. 

It is clear there will be a confrontation between Jacob de Zoet and Enomoto and I did something I rarely do:  I leafed through pages near the end to find out the outcome of that struggle.  That left me able to enjoy the rest of the book without so much anxiety.

This novel was well done historical fiction as far I know.  I was impressed to see a reference to Van Diemen's Land, the first name of Australia used by the Europeans.  And references to Carl Thunberg and Engelbert Kaempfer, westerners who both wrote about Japan. 

The title refers to something I would call a proverb in Chinese and Japanese.  The four character idiom means "one day, a thousand years," referring to rapid change.  What a great title.  There were many characters and it took some time to keep them clear in my mind, but they were well drawn and engaging.  The intense action is interspersed with engaging word-play with the interpreters and a clear respect for the pivotal role of the clerk of the Dutch East Indies Company.  I suspect this will rank in the top 5 favorites of the year for me.


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