For reasons that are both obscure and unfair, the genre of historical fiction has always filled me with a certain amount of loathing. Especially anything that’s set outside of the author’s lifetime. Mostly it seems like they’re trying to show off the scope of their research—and if that’s the case, why not just write a non-fiction book and spare us all the muddy editorializing?
Leave it to a formal whiz-kid like David Mitchell to show me the light. The England-born, Ireland-based author’s fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is unmistakably in the historical fiction tradition. There are none of the dazzling hairpin turns and time-jumps that made his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas an international phenomenon; the new book is set—permanently—in an isolated Dutch trading post off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, at the turn of the 19th century.
It’s also a drink of cool, cool water: shimmering, pristine, and so refreshing you may find yourself smacking your lips as the pages turn.
There’s plenty of plot to go around, and most of it involves the titular Jacob, a kind and moral Dutch clerk who’s part of the team brought in to clean up the trading company’s shoddy ledgers. It turns out nearly everyone on the small, “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” (called Dejima) is taking a cut of the profits, and they’re in no hurry to change their ways. The cast is a true ensemble. Along the way we meet upwards of a dozen Dutch employees, another dozen Japanese luminaries, and a slew of translators, slaves, servants, and samurai—not to mention one particularly intriguing Japanese midwife, whom Jacob instantly becomes infatuated with.
Even more seductive than the hydra-headed plot—and I haven’t even mentioned the prison breaks, super-powered abbots, or the monkey that pees in Jacob’s face yet—is the exquisitely detailed world of Dejima itself. The island really did exist, as did Japan’s policy of sakoku, whereby no person, foreign or Japanese, could enter or leave the country on penalty of death. The mainland is accessible through just one small gate, and only the most pressing of economic concerns can get even the highest-ranking Dutch officer through to the other side.
Mitchell excels at teasing out the strange protocols that both sides must follow, as well as how bonds can be forged across vast cultural gaps. Jacob’s friendships with the salty Dr. Marinus and a Japanese translator, Ogawa Uzaemon, feel appropriately hard-won and true. And, as in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell demonstrates his ventriloquist’s ability to expertly reproduce the myriad dialects and language tics running amok in this peculiar island-world.
If the novel does use a narrative trick, it’s in subtly shifting between the two nations’ perceptions of one another. The first section takes place almost exclusively from the Dutch point of view, with the Japanese mainland portrayed as a dangerous and seductively exotic place. From here, however, the cramped world of Dejima opens up, inch by inch. The second section takes us into the heart of Nagasaki and beyond, focusing on what we’re told is a remote nunnery, but turns out to be more like a remote rape factory with prayer breaks.
We also see the stifled voices of dissent about Japan’s isolationist politics. One intellectual scoffs at the usual line about Japan being an impregnable fortress. “[W]e are a ramshackle farmhouse,” he says, “with crumbling walls, a collapsing roof, and covetous neighbors… To avoid becoming a European colony, we need colonies of our own.”
The book does have a few slight wobbles near the end, and truthfully, Mitchell doesn’t quite stick the landing. Some of the story’s many threads are discarded without a satisfying payoff—notably a plan to take down an enemy ship using flaming arrows and a floating daisy chain of little merchant boats. How great would that have been?
No matter. This is a bold, perpetual-motion machine of a novel that never stops generating pleasure and intrigue in equal doses.
Alright, historical fiction: you are officially out of the doghouse. Now, what else have you got?
Knopf Canada, 496 pp., $32, hardcover
(review also appeared in SEE Magazine, July 1, 2010)