Commentary Magazine

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell
Random House, 479 pages

Literary journalists have long made a hobby of predicting greatness. Their predictions are rarely borne out, the laurels they bestow rarely last. Yet they continue, one imagines, animated both by genuine enthusiasm and a desire for self-aggrandizement. Who would not, after all, want to be credited with the discovery of a blinding new talent? Even writers of genuine gifts suffer irreparable damage to their careers (and, one imagines, their psychological well-being) from these reputational bubbles: their output thins, they sink back into obscurity, and critics hail the next new immortal. Marisha Pessl and Benjamin Kunkel, Donna Tartt and Alan Kurzweil, Calder Willingham and Doc Humes—casualties all. The process brings to mind Rainer Maria Rilke’s lament: “They wished to flower/and flowering is being beautiful. But we wanted to ripen/and that means being dark and taking pains.”

If any writer could be said, in the opinion of his readers and critics, to be ripening (although most would probably assert that he is flowering as well), it is the British novelist David Mitchell—and this despite his having entered the literary world burdened by precisely those immoderate critical assessments so capable of harming a writer’s development. Ghostwritten, Mitchell’s first novel, appeared in 1999 to wide acclaim, and each of his subsequent four books has only widened that acclaim, especially 2004’s Cloud Atlas, an intricate novel of nested stories extending in time from the mid-19th century to an apocalyptic distant future, a book described by Dave Eggers as “one of those how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it modern classics that no doubt is—and should be—read by any student of contemporary literature.”

Mitchell’s newest work, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is a meticulously crafted piece of historical fiction set in Japan at the turn of the 19th century and has garnered as much praise as any of his previous works. James Wood published a long review in the New Yorker extolling the limitlessness of Mitchell’s powers as a constructor of stories and as an artist of prose. According to Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, the new novel showcases “Mr. Mitchell’s mastery…not only of virtuosic literary fireworks, but also of the quieter arts of empathy and traditional storytelling.”

The seemingly indefatigableEggers, in a second Times review, asserts that the book “offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive.” Even the novel’s detractors, like Leo Robson of the New Statesman, seem to regard it in some unclear way as groundbreaking: “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a long shot, misses by a mile. But it is not an important failure. What is important, what matters, is that [Mitchell and writers like him] have a taste and gift for wriggling out of straightjackets, and embody a great promise or dream—to accomplish, in this battered form, something new.”

By unanimous public judgment, then, Mitchell is an accomplished, ambitious, and important writer. That his ambitions extend far beyond those of his contemporaries no one can doubt; merely to have taken up the subject he chose for his latest book required considerable intestinal fortitude. The Thousand Autumns centers on the life and experiences of its titular character, an accountant for the Dutch East Indies Company in the latter years of the Tokugawa shogunate, when all contact with Westerners was still restricted to the harbor island of Dejima, a small, artificial landmass constructed in the Bay of Nagasaki to help implement the national policy of sakoku—complete political and cultural seclusion and isolation.

Into this fraught place comes young, upright Jacob de Zoet, who politely and quietly resists the endless opportunities for graft his position proffers. He befriends a crusty, polymathic doctor and falls abruptly in love with Orito Aibagawa, a brilliant and determined medical student and midwife.Jacob is torn between a betrothal at home and his attraction to Orito, which mirrors the pull he feels both from his own culture and from Edo Japan. At the moment he finally admits to himself that Orito has supplanted his fiancée in his heart and mind, she is spirited away to a mountain shrine, where ex-prostitutes, ostracized female aristocrats, and women beset by misfortunes of all kinds are indentured into sexual servitude. Their purpose is to produce children for the order, children then used in a demonic life-prolonging ritual by the order’s initiates. There follows a botched rescue attempt, the successful assassination of the order’s abbot, and de Zoet’s resignation to a life without Orito, which the book’s final pages hint may be redeemed by her unexpected return.

Mitchell’s commingling of trade and military history, political skullduggery, taboo romance, and lavish elements of fantasy shows a tremendous amount of literary nerve. And he deserves praise even for attempting such difficult stunts. Anglophone authors with similarly high aims seem often to encounter some mysterious hobble that reduces their attempts to be socio-politically current to cheap satire (consider Gary Shteyngart’s recent work), causes their peering into the past to reek of demeaning fantasy (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated), and muffles their investigation of identity and being, of ethics and metaphysics, under domestic resentments (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, and countless others). Mitchell is above all these, in the best sense.

But for all the force and self-confidence underlying its composition, The Thousand Autumns seems static and overplanned, in part because of its multifarious plot structure. The novel is crammed with incident—from Jacob’s own clashes with the corrupt corporate culture of his employers, to the incursions of the supernatural, to simple slapstick. This divides the reader’s attention and limits the novel’s emotional impact. Historical novels often suffer from an overaccretion of detail, as their writers seek to shore up the book’s authenticity. In the case of The Thousand Autumns, this encrustation is accompanied by a troubling uniformity of register. The scraps of his internal monologue Mitchell makes us privy to illuminate this odd flatness of affect: “I wish, he thinks, spoken words could be captured and kept in a locket” runs one such thought. Another: “A terrifying night, Jacob thinks, yet even terror can pale into monotony.”

Those wooden lines are emblematic of Mitchell’s prose. For all the intricate, antic plotting of the book, its language—which strives at every turn for sensual vividness and accuracy—is strangely bereft of energy. Leaden phrases and ill-conceived metaphors abound. At a problematic baby delivery: “When the maid sees the foreign contraption [an obstetric forceps], she exclaims in alarm.” Of de Zoet’s corporate superior: “A friend might describe his narrow eyes as ‘observant,’ an enemy as ‘Mephistophelean.’” In a book of music, “the notes of the luminous sonatas hang like grapes from the staves.” During a tense business meeting, “ramifications hatch from” an “appalling hush.” The Latinate words “navigate” and “ramifications” (and the bungled metaphor in which the latter occurs), the well-worn adjective “Mephistophelean” (an improbable word as well, since none of the principal players in the novel shows the slightest acquaintance with German Romantic or Elizabethan drama), the nonsensical intransitive construction of the verb “exclaim”: such usages testify to a desire for lexical ornament rather than an exactness of language, and even to a species of laxness or laziness on the part of their author. And this is to say nothing of the anachronistic and implausible vaguely British English spoken by the Dutch characters—odd in so meticulously researched a book—or the mildly offensive pidgin spoken by the Japanese characters—odd for a writer so publicly enamored of Japan, who proclaimed that his intent in writing The Thousand Autumns was to produce a “bicultural” book.

Indeed, there is something troubling in the book’s “biculturalism.” What does it mean that Mitchell has created here a 600-year-old Japanese monk who can suck the life force from insects with his mind? Or a secret monastic order of baby-farmers? There does seem to be a peculiarly reactionary view of Japan on display here. But because Mitchell gives no hint of being a racist, there must be another cause for this odd invocation of the old-time Mysteries of the Orient. It is, I think, that actual writerly empathy, the evocation of another’s consciousness, seems to be beyond him, despite all his gifts for research, plot construction, and incidental detail. He must, in the end, rely on highly schematic means to convey his point.

The nested stories of Cloud Atlas, his most acclaimed work, suffer from some of the same weaknesses. Mitchell writes each, or attempts to, in a dialect expressive of its time period, and he does no better conveying the reality of early-19th-century sea voyages (the subject of the book’s outermost frame) than he does with the interior of Japan here. Instead, he relies on a prose peppered with ampersands and elevated diction; the CloudAtlas stories set in the future also seem somehow sketchy and unreal, despite the carefully craftedneologisms Mitchell employs to let us know that we are no longer in Kansas (or Kaunas or Kathmandu). It is saddening to say, but such lexical flourishes and structuralbaroquerie—means belonging truly to only the most serious talents, to the Joyces and Nabokovs, the Andrei Belys and Robert Musils—serve no real purpose in The Thousand Autumns other than as ornamentation, and instead reveal that Mitchell’sinsight into the tremendously variegated human activity he examines as a writer is fundamentally limited. The relevant question is: how did David Mitchell garner a reputation for acuity and mastery, qualities he does not possess? Unanswerable, of course, beyond a sustained grumble over the caprices of our collective taste. But we must ask it nonetheless.

About the Author

Sam Munson, who last wrote for us about the Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai, is the author of The November Criminals, a novel published by Doubleday.

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