A Storyteller’s Playbook

There is no doubt that one of the most phenomenal and talented writers in the contemporary is British writers David Mitchell. His third novel and magnum opus Cloud Atlas (2004) is singly one of the most recognized titles out there. It earned him several accolades and global recognition. The book transcends the boundaries and the norms of literature. It is a towering achievement of literature for its refusal to conform to and challenge the boundaries of the standard narrative structure. This Mitchell accomplished without compromising on storytelling elements. While Cloud Atlas is his most renowned work, the universe of Mitchell’s prose is as vast as his most genre-bending work is. The diversity of his works ensures that the readers are always occupied and that their whims are catered to.

Mitchell’s perversion for genre-bending was also evident in The Bone Clocks (2014), a story that provided a grim picture of the future. The book even earned Stephen King’s nod of approval and won the 2015 World Fantasy Award. However, if neither dystopia nor fantasy is your cup of tea, Mitchell’s literary universe does have other works to offer, such as works of historical fiction. In his latest novel, Utopia Avenue (2020), he captured the shifts in the musical landscape and the counterculture of the 1960s through the story of an unlikely and eclectic cast of characters. At the same time, the novel, on the backdrop, captured the political and historical atmosphere of the 1960s in a story that takes the readers on a literary ride in the United Kingdom and across the United States. In these three works, Mitchell has also showcased his affection for adventuresome settings.

His fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is another fine example of Mitchell’s peripatetic prose. The story transports the readers to the turn of 18th-century Edo-era Japan. The setting: the 120-meter-long artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. Nagasaki was then the primary port of entry for Western traders who want to enter Japanese territory; Japan was generally off-limits to foreigners and their entrance into the hermitical kingdom is highly regulated. This, however, did not stop them from trading with Westerners. Dejima, for instance, was acquired by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC, literally United East Indian Company). The company was headquartered on the island of Batavia (present-day Jakarta) on the island of Java. The distance between the island and the mainland provided enough buffer between the locals and the foreigners. It was also populated by a group of untrustworthy and unscrupulous individuals, the dregs of society.

“But prosperity is gone for good, I fear. I pray I’m wrong, but I doubt I am. The old values are decaying, that’s the problem. The smell of decadence hangs everywhere, like smoke. Oh, samurai enjoy the notion of wading into battle like their valiant ancestors, but when the storehouse is hungry, it’s swordsmanship they say goodbye to, but when the storehouse is hungry, it’s swordsmanship they say goodbye to, not their concubines and silk linings. Those who do care about the old ways are the very ones who fall foul of the new.”

~ Davud Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The novel was divided into five parts, with the first part, titled The Bride for Whom we Dance, fixated on laying out the main characters and the landscape of the story. On the island arrived the titular Jacob de Zoet, a young educated clerk working for a Dutch merchant ship. Young and driven, wide-eyed and ambitious, Jacob was hoping to make a name for himself by working under Chief Vorstenbosch and the VOC. It was not only prestige that he was hoping to achieve. He was also hoping to earn sufficient money before he returns to his homeland in a couple of years and marry his betrothed, Anna, who he left behind in Holland. Anna was born into an affluent family and it was Anna’s father who suggested that Jacob join the VOC and earn his keep. Jacob has a moratorium. In five years, he must amass enough fortune to pay for his dowry.

What de Zoet witnessed when he arrived in Dejima was a company in shambles. He found himself walking on a tightrope as the relations between the Japanese and the Dutch were strained. Japan was immovable in upholding the same standards that have allowed it to preserve its culture. For years, it has shirked relations with the majority of European merchants; the Dutch were their only European trading partners. Meanwhile, the Dutch were equally devious as they were hoping to exploit the locals for their own financial gains. In VOC, de Zoet discovered that the company’s accounting records were a mess. Honest accounting was compromised in exchange for personal gains. Corruption was ubiquitous. For de Zoet, it was an opportunity to make a name for himself. He set straight five years’ worth of ledgers. His diligence earned him praises but his principled approach was also unwelcome, hence, earning him silent foes in other quarters.

Jacob was no saint either as he had his own dark secrets. The first one, and one of the biggest historical contexts of the period, came in the form of a Psalter Jacob managed to stealthily sneak into Japan, unnoticed by the local authorities. During the 17th century, the Tokugawa shogunate persecuted Japanese Christians and Portuguese missionaries, the only other significant contact Japan had with the rest of the world. Despite the change in leadership, Christianity was still banned and its texts were forbidden by stringent anti-Christian laws. Anyone, including foreigners, found in possession of Christian works was persecuted. If Jacob was lucky, his worst punishment would be deportation. For further reading, this contentious part of Japanese history was vividly captured in Shūsaku Endō’s Silence (1966). Mitchell’s novel, meanwhile, grappled with an underexplored part of Japanese history. Looming on the horizon is the impending arrival of the British merchants.

The crux of the story, however, was the developing love story between Jacob and Miss Orito Aibagawa, a young Japanese midwife. She was talented, bright, and independent-minded. Her quick thinking helped save the life of the local magistrate’s wife. Because of her heroic deed, she was awarded certain privileges that were not often granted to women of her time; Japanese society was patriarchal. She can walk around freely around the male-dominated Dejima. She was also granted permission to study at the medical academy led by Dr. Marinus; she was the only female student. However, a facial scar rendered her unmarriageable, at least to someone of her father’s standing. This did not stop Jacob from being smitten with her after a chance encounter. But fate is rarely kind. It didn’t take long for the proverbial storms to disrupt the romance that was blossoming between two unlikely characters.

“The present is a battleground where rival what-ifs compete to become the ffuture ‘what is.’ How does one what-if prevail over its adversaries? The answer, the andwer, ‘Military and political power, of course!’ is a postponement, for what is it that directs the minds of the powerful? The answer is ‘belief.’ Beliefs that are ignoble or idealistic; democratic or Confucian; Occidental or Oriental; timid or bold; clear-sighted or delusional. Power is informed by belief that this path, and not another, must be followed. What, then, or where, is the womb of belief What, or where, is the crucible of ideology?”

~ Davud Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Historical and cultural contexts abounded throughout the story. The novel was also rife with details, including the attitudes that characterized the period. Among the Dutch merchants, it has been silently accepted for them to take a Dejima wife. Those who cannot afford the upkeep of a separate woman availed of the services of prostitutes. Even Jacob had Anna’s permission to satisfy his “male urges” while they were apart. Miss Aibagawa is neither, hence, Jacob must earn her trust and love. The liberality that existed among the foreign men was an antithesis to the conservative Japanese culture. Japanese men were ostensibly on top of the pecking order while the women were subservient to their whims. It was this highly stratified social order persisting in Japanese society that was among the hurdles that Jacob and Miss Aibagawa must overcome.

The imbalance in the male-female dynamics was further explored through a separate storyline that diverged as the story moved forward. Miss Aibagawa’s privileges did not preclude her from being spirited away to a bizarre and mysterious mountain shrine called Mount Shiranui Shrine. To forgive her recently departed father’s debts, she was bequeathed to the pseudo-­respectable demigod who runs the nunnery. Against her will, Miss Aibagawa must spend the next 20 years in the nunnery and was not permitted to leave the compound. However, it was no ordinary nunnery as it was a front for a form of sexual slavery that was happening inside its walls. Once a month, women were selected to be drugged and raped by the monks. The women were brainwashed into believing that it was consensual but the reality is that they had no choice. The men’s faces were hidden from the women and once they give birth, the children are taken away.

It would not be a Mitchell novel if it does not contain eccentric details. While the second storyline dealt with the male-female dynamics in the conservative Japanese society, it also explored other subjects such as cult behavior and the perpetual search for immortality, even if it entails the most bizarre of rituals. The second storyline also changed the dynamics of the story. After Jacob learns of Miss Aibagawa’s plight, a rescue attempt in the form of a samurai raid was organized. The work of historical fiction slowly transformed into an adventure story. Rather than a thriller story, what prevailed was an exploration of another facet of Japanese society: feudalism.

The success of the rescue team, however, was secondary to what the novel achieves. On the surface, it seems like a typical story of cross-cultural lovers who must overcome the odds thrown at them, such as tradition, politics, and law. But this is Mitchell’s literary sphere and a mere love story won’t suffice. We also read a novel brimming with paradoxes, such as its subtle contradictions of scientific ideas with religious ideologies. But the biggest paradox captured the merits of a hermitical society compared to an open and liberated society that welcomes developments. Isolation, both on an individual and societal scale, was a leitmotif. Its antithesis was a society drawn to the chaos of pluralism and globalization.

“For white men, to live is to own, or to try to own more, or to die trying to own more. Their appetites are astonishing! They own wardrobes, slaves, carriages, houses, warehouses, and ships. They own ports, cities, plantations, valleys, mountains, chains of islands. They own this world, its jungles, its skies, and its seas. Yet they complain that Dejima is a prison. They complain they are not free.”

~ Davud Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Despite the deviations in themes and subjects, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the quintessential Mitchell novel. It was brimming with ideas that made it dense. He did a commendable job of bringing the time period alive; throughout his career, he has demonstrated his mastery of building up atmosphere and settings. However, for his fifth novel, Mitchell adapted a more straightforward structure. The intertextuality of his works was also evident as some characters appear or have connections with the characters in his other works. Dr. Marinus, for instance, was a seminal character in The Bone Clocks. Jacob de Zoet’s descendant, Jasper de Zoet would form part of the band Utopia Avenue in his latest novel of the same name. These recurring characters, along with subtle symbolism and strange coincidences in time and space are staples in Mitchell’s prose.

The intensive amount of research Mitchell poured into the story was palpable. Interestingly, the development of the novel takes root on one backpacking trip in western Japan in 1994. While in Nagasaki, he stumbled upon the Dejima museum. The rest, they say, is history. For four years, he worked on the novel. Several details of the story were finely done that it takes time for the novel’s flaws to surface. There were parts where it slacks before it is succeeded by a sudden burst of momentum. Intricate details of even the most minute objects resulted in a repetitiveness that undermined the novel’s overall appeal. Mitchell also had compunctions for suspense points which worked at times but were off most of the time. The writing was uneven.

No literary work is faultless. However, despite its flaws, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet provides an immersive reading experience. It is equally complex and dense as it is lush; it was no easy read requiring the readers’ attention. Its vivid tapestry explored a plethora of subjects that spanned romance, history, cultural differences, desire, and cultism. At its heart, it is also a story of the clash between good and evil, and those that lie in between. Longlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize for Fiction and a The New York Times Notable Book of the Year, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet underlined Mitchell’s capabilities as a top-notch writer and storyteller.

“Faith shall save your Soul from Death. Without Faith, Death is a drowning, the end of ends, and what sane man wouldn′t fear that? But with Faith, Death is nothing worse than the end of the voyage we call life, and the beginning of an eternal voyage in a company of our Loved Ones, with griefs and woes smoothed out, and under the capacity of our Creator…”

~ Davud Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Rating

66%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

Surely, David Mitchell is one of my new favorite writers. It was all thanks to Cloud Atlas, a complex but absorbing labyrinth of a story. It was such a memorable story that I didn’t hesitate in exploring his other works. My fascination with his prose grew stronger with The Bone Clocks. Utopia Avenue was a little underwhelming but it is not stopping me from reading more of Mitchell’s works. In 2022, I finally read a book I acquired quite a long time ago; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has been gathering dust on my bookshelf. Interestingly, despite my fascination with historical fiction, I found myself a little underwhelmed by the novel. The start dragged and when the story started picking up over hundred pages later, it was towards a direction I was not expecting. Repetitions and Mitchell’s compunction for suspension points made the literary journey a little more challenging. It certainly was not a masterpiece but it had its fair share of good points. Despite being predictable at parts, it was still an unexpected read from a brilliant writer.

Book Specs

Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Canada
Publishing Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 479
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

In 2007, TIME magazine named him one of the most influential people in the world. He has been a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to the Guardian‘s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from which preceded it.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a stunning departure for this brilliant, restless, and wildly ambitious author, a giant leap forward by even his own high standards. A bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history, it is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancee back in Holland.

But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings. As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?”

A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author.

About the Author

To learn more about David Mitchell, the world-renowned author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, click here.