Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

I must admit I approached this new novel from English novelist David Mitchell with a certain amount of trepidation. I hadn't read his widely praised Cloud Atlas, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2004, but I knew it was regarded as a 'difficult read'.

Well, his new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is absolutely brilliant. This book will be soon regarded as a classic. It is a rich, absorbing, highly dramatic and hugely enjoyable saga of life and society set in a secluded, anti-Western and anti-Christian Japan in 1799. The sea-faring Dutch have managed to negotiate a commercial relationship with the isolationist Japanese authorities, and have been allowed to set up a small piece of 'foreign territory' on a small island in the port of Nagasaki.

The intense relationships between the Dutch themselves and between them and the Japanese provide most of the drama of the book. The dialogue is superb, enlivened by an earthy crudity that is frequently funny and, of course, downright racist in today's terms:

'The jaundiced pygmies'.

'What was that frog-croak? I hate a man...who farts in French and expects applause'.

Towards the end of the book the British get involved, and carry on as only the British know how ('So let's give this despotic backwater a taste of the coming century..'). But 'untainted' Japan is an equally flawed and brutal society, with sheer evil and hypocrisy riddled throughout.

'If only, Shiroyama dreams, human beings were not masks behind masks behind masks. If only this world was a clean board of lines and intersections. If only time was a sequence of considered moves and not a chaos of slippages and blunders'. 

The re-creation of that moment in history two centuries ago brings home some basic truths that Mitchell constantly underscores. The ordinary lives of ordinary human beings today are qualitatively better on just about every level and on any measure. There is no romanticising of the past going on here. In terms of medicine (there were no x-rays or antibiotics so people suffered awfully from common complaints we can cure so easily now), communications (replies to letters took three years to arrive), education (superstition and sheer ignorance had awful consequences), social structures (slaves and the lower classes were treated with abject cruelty), law and justice (corruption reigned supreme), and international relations (power and subjugation ruled) - compared to these brutish realities the modern world is a highly civilised place.

We tend to forget this. Mitchell rubs our noses in it.

In the end this book celebrates the value of honorable and courageous men and women, individuals who stand up for what is right, and thus power the progress of liberation for all.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet  is an enormously satisfying novel, and I urge you to read it. You won't be disappointed.

I predict a shortlisting for the Booker, for sure.

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