The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
(Random House, June 2010)
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Anyone who has ever read my blog, or ever met me, stands a good chance of having heard me talk about David Mitchell. It's rather satisfying, at my age, to have discovered my Favorite Living Writer. Ever since Cloud Atlas left me slack-jawed and inarticulate with its puzzle structure and fearlessly ambitious plots and astonishing humor and humanist compassion and heartbreaking truths -- okay, even before that, when I snapped up Ghostwritten and Number Nine Dream with the satisfaction of finding just what one wanted to eat, a meal that becomes a sweet memory -- and especially afterward, when I met the man at book readings for Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green and he turned out to be the kind, brilliant, self-effacing person you hope in your heart of hearts that your favorite authors might turn out to be -- David Mitchell has been my model for what writing and writers can be, and I have described myself truthfully if unflatteringly as a slavering fan. (That sentence was just because I could. Sorry.)
But having a favorite writer also means you approach every new work of theirs with an inevitable trepidation: will it hold up? Will you have to love it half-heartedly, out of loyalty, or will it blow you away again? Will it move you in the same way -- or better yet, in a different way -- or will it be simply good, and not great?
For this reason, after I had gotten Random House's postcard last fall announcing a new David Mitchell title coming in June, and after I had begged the publicist to consider Greenlight for an event*, and after Mitchell's wonderful editor David Ebershoff had stopped into Greenlight and we'd talked about our mutual love for the man, and after Ebershoff had, taking pity on me, sent me the bound manuscript for Mitchell's new book -- I looked at it on my shelf for about a month and a half before opening it. I told myself and other people I wanted to wait until I could set aside time to read it straight through, and that was partly true. But of course I was also nervous about whether he could do it again, and whether I could love like that again. Finally, on the plane to see my family in California for a post-Christmas vacation, I pulled the 8 1/2 by 11 thing out of my bag and started to read.
So? What was it like? It was not like Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten; it was a single narrative thread, ostensibly, the story of a Dutch trading post in Japan in 1799 and following. I noted with satisfaction that it was written in third person, a first for Mitchell -- he had noted at a reading I attended that he had always written in first person, since he "wouldn't know where to look" without a single perspective, but that third person sounded like a challenge he should set himself -- and look here, he had.
I also noted, as no doubt reviewers will, that one thread of this narrative involves a European (in Jacob de Zoet's case a Dutchman, in Mitchell's case an Irishman) falling in love with a Japanese girl (in de Zoet's case, Orito Aibagawa, a young surgeon in training who has a scar that makes her unmarriageable, but not unbeautiful; in Mitchell's case, his now wife and mother of his children, whom I know nothing more about). Here the similarity ends between Mitchell's biography and the story, but it is a telling detail -- I think during Mitchell's time in Japan he fell in love with Murakami and a kind of Japanese-ness as well as with the woman he eventually married, and Japan looms large in his pantheon of influences. There is an outsider's tenderness and frustration and fascination and longing and homesickness in the book that rings true to life; the part of me that considers myself to a very small degree David Mitchell's friend (we have had dinner together in a group, and he writes very kind things in my galleys and remembers my bookstore plans when he sees me) is glad that he wrote this part of his story, and that he did it in this particular way.
In fact, a great many things in the book delighted me, though they swam up slowly, rather than bursting in a flood of revelation. I love that Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch Reformed Calvinist (I am one myself, unlikely as that seems), and that his faith is taken seriously, as are the various faiths or skepticisms of the Asian, African, European, and other characters that populate the book -- they're not neuroses or tools of oppression, though they can be used that way. I love how in this simple through-line narrative about a young Dutchman in Japan, Mitchell manages to include dozens of other stories -- nearly every character in the book finds space to tell his own story, including some of the most contemptible. I love the endless invention that goes into making these many imaginary and believably specific lives, and the compassion that Mitchell, typically, has for them all.
I love several instances of good triumphing decidedly and sometimes hilariously over evil, as well as many more instances of good intentions bringing suffering and disappointment. I love that part way through this rigorously historical novel, a never-quite-resolved hint of creepy supernaturalism is introduced, as well as a very real nefarious institution, and the novel becomes, for a while, an adventure story. I love that, though he knows exactly how to write a satisfying adventure story, Mitchell cannot be relied upon to give all of his characters happy endings (though I didn't exactly love it at the time I was reading it -- I was actually a little angry and sad). I love how the novel in the end manages to be drawn together and loosened, resolved and heartbreakingly abandoned, all at once. I love how it stayed with me and grew in me after I had read it (on the plane and during the weekend I should have been hanging out with my family, though they're all readers too so it was mutual) -- as the best novels do.
As the ALP has postulated, the works of art that stay with us are usually not the ones that we love easily on first experiencing them. Rather, they tend to be the ones that grow on us, that we find ourselves thinking about and wrestling with and returning to. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is that second kind. It seems to have made its own distinctive ache in my heart -- for the heartbreaks of the story, and its beauties, and its delights that I will never experience for the first time again. In this way it does seem very Japanese: infused with an appreciation of the ephemeral that is as much about the nostalgia as about the event -- an autumnal beauty, in fact.
There is one delight, though, that I have yet to experience. When asked about the occasional recurrence of his characters from one book to another, Mitchell described a sort of waiting room, where every character he's ever written hangs out, and if he has a place for them in a story, they get a new part. I'm wondering whether Thousand Autumns is populated by any of the characters from the first section of Cloud Atlas, which takes place on a sailing vessel around the same time. Now, I'm gloatingly preserving the delight of re-reading Cloud Atlas to discover which characters might have life in both books. And perhaps "gloatingly preserving" is what made me wait so long to read Thousand Autumns anyway.
* The Greenlight David Mitchell event, by the way, has been scheduled: Saturday, July 17, at 7:30 PM. Random House is giving us a little budget to throw a party -- we're thinking sake and champagne. Open to ideas, though.
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