After having published a number of very well-received novels (none of which I had read when I picked up Jacob de Zoet), David Mitchell wrote this as his first all-out historical novel. Now, it’s easy to be all snobbish about something that makes you think of costume dramas full of swooning maidens in lavish dresses, but to be honest, most of my favourite books are historical. And novels. So there.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has it all: the incredibly removed setting (Nagasaki in the early 19th century), the multitude of characters (and each one gets the chance to elaborate on his or her story), and a lot of adventure. But it’s so much more than the sum of those parts, because the critics and the rest of the world were right: David Mitchell is a very, very good writer.
The story begins in 1799, when Jacob de Zoet, a clerk working for the Dutch East Indian Company, arrives in Dejima, Japan’s only trading post with the outside world. While working for a corrupt boss in an equally corrupt environment trying to make the best of the economic collapse of the company, Jacob falls in love with Miss Aibagawa, a midwife studying under the island’s doctor. Their love is doomed, of course, but Jacob’s struggles in this strange little world are so captivating, and the writing is so poetic, that the action-film sequences of a damsel in distress in the middle part of the book somehow don’t seem overdone.
While The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a captivating story that makes you read into the small hours of the morning, it takes its time to elaborate and ponder. Jacob, on behalf of every reader, struggles with the big questions in life: power, morals, religion, progress, love, loyalty and bravery. We learn about midwifery, Japanese moral codes, all kinds of diseases and British warships. And all of this is held together by Mitchell’s way with words. His language is rich and poetic, and every subject he touches gets treated in a way that makes it interesting, without sounding patronising. It’s the poetry that stuck with me most, and even before the breathtaking chapter set in the Magistracy, which reads like a poem, I marked a few sentences like a lovelorn teenager devouring romantic poems. “She hears the ancient hush of falling snow” is my favourite of the many, many beautiful sentences in this book.
I don’t want to imagine the work that must have gone into the research for this novel alone, especially since Mitchell knows Japan, but to my knowledge has no connection to the Netherlands or the Dutch language. As a translator, I was a bit uneasy about this aspect at first: The Dutch residents’ language is highly individualised, and each speaker has their own slang, complete with faulty declination and word-formation. This is a clever device that must have made Mitchell’s work even more difficult, but since the novel is written in English, and the characters are Dutch, those sequences feel somehow translated, although they obviously never were Dutch in the first place. It took me a while to relax and see the slang as just this, rather than an over-the-top attempt to translate peculiarities of the language. (Translators and their struggles feature heavily in the novel, which makes me love the book anyway.) I’m sure nobody but me had this problem, so I can give my 5 stars and declare this book my new favourite of all time. It’s love.