Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell

I have been involved in an ongoing debate with a friend of mine that typically starts thusly:

Friend: "Where is the modern-day William Faulkner?"

Me: "There is no modern-day William Faulkner because William Faulkner is dead and cannot publish books anymore."

It's a fatuous reply, I know. I inevitably concede that I understand what he's talking about. He's lamenting the fact that there are no modern classics. No "high literature" that compares to the work of Joyce, Fitzgerald or Faulkner (or any other such literary luminary from the pre-war era).

I always hate this argument. It has no historical perspective or context. I instantly imagine two pretentious blowhards sitting around a salon drinking gin and tonics in 1923 lamenting the fact that there is no literature that can compare to Dickens or Hardy or the Bronte sisters. Then I imagine two dusty windbags sitting around the Preston Club drinking cognac in 1864 lamenting... well, you get the picture. We put a premium on our past and never admit that culture being produced at the moment could possibly be better than what came before.

I have always trundled out names such as Rushdie, Eugenides, Murakami, de Bernieres and Russo, among others but I wait through the dithering and excuse making to play my trump card:

"What about Cloud Atlas."


What about Cloud Atlas? Both of us have read and raved over David Mitchell's stellar 2004 novel. It is one of those rare books that has everything. You could fill pages and pages of blog space detailing why Cloud Atlas is one of, if not the best, novel written in the last ten years. But if I were to try and boil it down to a single point I would argue that Mitchell's narrative construction is a thing of sublime beauty. Absolutely nobody (that I have read) juggles and weaves narratives with as deft a hand as Mitchell does in Cloud Atlas.

The trouble is, neither of us had ever read anything else by David Mitchell. I was aware that he was twice nominated for the Booker Prize (how Cloud Atlas didn't win the Booker Prize I will never understand) so our case sample for Mitchell was too small to include him in the list of truly great contemporary writers. Cloud Atlas had put him on the radar, but it would take another novel to confirm our suspicions. We'd just have to wait and see.

(Remember that we live in a small town in deepest, darkest Asia and neither of us can simply walk to the local bookshop and buy a copy of any of Mitchell's work. We simply have to wait until they find there way into out spheres).

So, when The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet landed in my hands a few weeks back, I was excited. While this novel is not quite as good as Cloud Atlas, I can say, categorically, that it confirms David Mitchell's inclusion in our little ex-pat in Asia modern literary canon.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a beautifully articulated piece of historical fiction set on the island of Dejima during the time of Dutch trade concessions in Japan. The novel does a wonderful job of expressing the continual friction between European colonial trade empires and the isolationist reticence of the Japanese shogunate. The story surrounds the real events of the British bombardment of Nagasaki in 1801 and the ritual suicide of the Nagasaki magistrate. The fictionalized narrative Mitchell fleshes around this historical skeleton is nothing short of astounding. Ripe with detail, the story centers on a Dutch clerk named, oddly enough, Daniel de Zoet and his awkward love for a Japanese woman he can never, ever hope to have.

In true Mitchell style (I assume), the story takes strange turn after strange turn, oscillating between a story of colonial power in Asia to a Japanese tale of honor and revenge (at one point it even edges disturbingly close to science fiction). This is what I love about Mitchell. At no point in this novel was I not firmly within his grasp. He manipulates the story so well that by extension he is manipulating the reader. I marveled at the way Mitchell could shift the story ever so subtly (just a literary inch) so as to alter the entire mood and direction of the narrative from one direction to another.

As in other great novels, there are moments in this book that I will carry with me until the day I die. And for me that's the mark of a truly excellent book. A novel that conjures up vivid images years after you read it. But if there is one critique I would make concerning this novel is that it is often too detailed, sometimes unnecessarily so. While such lapses into minutiae never affected the pace of the narrative there were several moments when I questioned the appearance of a sentence or two that made no difference to the story and seemed to simply pile on the detail. But if you are singling out specific sentences as the biggest flaws in a novel, you have crossed over into the realm of nit-pickery.

If anyone out there besides my friend and I we wondering if David Mitchell is for real (and by now I can't imagine there are many out there pondering this point... we may be the last), he is. My apologies if it sounds like I am lionizing Mitchell here, but I simply can't help it. If you have not read anything by David Mitchell I urge you to do so at your earliest possible convenience. You are missing out on something truly special.

Is he William Faulkner?

Mercifully, no.

He's David Mitchell, and that's just as good.


Interactile Learning said...

As opposed to two pretentious blowhards sitting around the lounge drinking gin and tonics in 2012 lamenting the fact that there is no literature that can compare to Dickens or Hardy or the Bronte sisters???

Ryan said...


Fairday Morrow said...

What a beautifully written post! You really made me think and you brought up many excellent points. Great works of art/music/literature are often not recognized until years later. I haven't read anything by this author, but from your post I can tell that I am missing out! I have added him to my list with stars next to his name. Thanks for enlightening me!

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