With Thousand Autumns, David Mitchell (not that one) has served up a literary feast, replete with wonderfully accurate cultural details (on three cultures), historical depth and understanding, a brilliantly thrilling adventure and love story, and sympathetic, multi-dimensional characters. This is an absolute gem of a novel, well worth reading for anyone interested in Japanese culture and the interaction between cultures, or Japanese history. In fact, well worth reading for anyone.
Thousand Autumns is set primarily on Dejima, the Dutch artificial island and trading outpost through which all Japanese-European trade was conducted for hundreds of years before the ‘opening’ of the country by foreign powers in the mid-nineteenth century. The novel’s central protagonist is the eponymous Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk of the Dutch East India Company. De Zoat arrives as the up-and-coming assistant to the trading outposts’s new chief Unico Vorstenbosch. As the first third of the novel unfolds we get to know the collection of characters that inhabit Dejima in glorious detail. Mitchell provides convincing, indeed fascinating back stories for most, the highlights being the wheeler dealer Arie Grote, and the intellectual doctor Dr Lucas Marinus. In the first third the plot is subsumed by wonderfully rich language and character details – Mitchell has a brilliant talent for prose, with such evocative gems as “the rectum of Wybo Gerritszoon releases a hot fart of horror.” When this third is over I was almost disappointed, as in the second part the focus shifts elsewhere – to a Japanese shrine high in the mountains north of Nagasaki. It is here the central plot of the novel becomes clear. The final third brings the various strands together, with the arrival of the British.
In a short essay, ‘On Historical Fiction’, at the end of the novel, David Mitchell does much of this review’s work for me. He writes: Why, then, the enduring popularity of historical fiction? One reason is that it delivers a stereo narrrative: from one speaker comes the treble of the novel’s own plot while the other speaker plays the bass of history’s plot.This captures the beauty and brilliance of Thousand Autumns – it delivers on both these counts. It is a love story, a drama and a historical novel, and each dimension works brilliantly. Some of the misunderstandings that occur between the Dutch and the Japanese remind me of my own time in Japan, and you can tell from reading this that Mitchell lived there. Problems? Well, the first third was pitch perfect, while the conclusion to the novel felt slightly more rushed – although the actual ending itself was just as I had hoped.
All in all there is little to fault in this. I haven’t read Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas, but will be doing so now. Mitchell has served up a fantastically rich novel that leaves you with the best and worst of feelings when you finish it – happy at having experienced the story, but sad that you will never be able to read it again for the first time.