Thursday, 30 June 2011

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is famous as an author of literary fiction, so I was unsure what to expect of this novel, some six hundred pages set in 18th century Japan. I feared for lines like this:
Tea is cool lush green in a smooth pale bowl.
And indeed, there was quite a lot of this sort of thing, and, initially, a fair amount of lengthy and suddenly poetic speech-making from uneducated labourers/surly deck hands, as well as learned and unmotivated discourses on early medicine.

I had serious concerns, but I soldiered on, as the setting was interesting. Jacob de Zoet is among the very few Dutch who have managed to gain a toe-hold in Japan as traders, while the country is still resolutely insular, not allowing its citizens to leave the country, or foreigners to go further than a tiny section of the port. On page 100, I was still worried I was in for an elaborate metaphor on the birth of modern science; when all of a sudden, the novel took a bizarre and spectacular left turn. Skip the next paragraph if you plan to read the book.

Jacob falls in love with a heavily scarred Japanese woman, who is then abducted and forced into a CULT FOR BREEDING BABIES which are later MURDERED TO GIVE THIS CRAZY ABBOT ETERNAL LIFE. Safe to say, we have left the realm of the well-behaved literary novel. There is even a failed rescue attempt, with sword fighting, and face-to-face encounters with the deranged Abbot; and then, if this was not enough, we suddenly switch to a being on board an English ship preparing for battle. Apparently, Holland has fallen to the British, so the Dutch on Nagasaki are essentially stranded. There is a big sea battle, and Jacob more or less saves Nagasaki, single-handed, don't ask me how, because I didn't really follow. The book ends the traditional way, with a ritual disembowelling and a triple-cross poison plot.

So in short: literary potboiler. I loved it. There was lots of beautiful writing – try this:
An enterprising fly buzzes over his urine in the chamber pot
I can't think when I've heard sewage more elegantly described.

There was also a staggering amount of research, and historical detail, woven neatly and elegantly into the deranged plot. I learnt, for example, that to get a gouty toe to heal, doctors of the time thought it a good idea to put mouse droppings in the open wound, to produce more pus. Thank god for the birth of modern science.

12 comments:

  1. Thank god for modern science indeed! This sounds like an .... interesting book! I'm not sure I'll pick it up but I'm glad to see that you enjoyed it.

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  2. It's certainly very odd, being in equal mixtures extremely 'literary'and very mass-market. I wasn't sure what to make of it.

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  3. I like the cover-looks attractive. I see its quite a lengthy but what makes me what to pick this book is the beauty of the setting you've mentioned. Would consider this, perhaps.

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  4. It is really very educational. I learnt a lot about Japan. Apparently, you could not leave the few blocks of the port where you entered, even if you lived there for YEARS, so when Holland fell, the Dutch really were in a kind of prison.

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  5. Interesting review, Sarah! I read a glowing review of this book in the newspaper and I remember the writer of the review asking why this book was not shortlisted for the Booker prize. From your review, it looks like the book has beautiful prose and a lot of historical information on Japan, but the plot is a bit tricky. I am not sure I will read this book, though I am tempted by the research on Japan. Thanks for this wonderful review :)

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  6. I've only read one David Mitchell to date (Black Swan Green), but he does seem to excel at mixing styles and genres.

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  7. I love the way he writes. Well, mostly. Not Black Swan Green, but Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten I think are brilliant - he's a virtuoso at the level of sentence and image but also on great sweeps of story and concept. And to create elaborate worlds with such confidence - quite extraordinary. Annoyingly, he looks about 12.

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  8. I have just had to do a google image search. Now I am depressed to. I am not quite sure how he managed to syntheise such a huge amount of historical information into one bonkers plot, but it is a huge achievement. I have never read any other David Mitchell - maybe I should start. I hear good and bad things of Black Swan Green, so maybe I won't start with that one x

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  9. This is a book I would love to read. I love books with some amount of research. I read and loved Geisha by Arthur Golden.

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  10. I think you would really enjoy it in that case. I genuinely can't think when I've learnt so much from a book. Theres a very interesting digression about how men were forced (or as they called it 'pressed') into serving on British navy ships - really awful; you get drunk and wake up on a ship, and you'll be gone for years!

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  11. I have Cloud Atlas on the shelf, when you next need a paper book for the bus - it was a recommendation from Laura actually, but I haven't tried it yet. x

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  12. Really? I havent seen it! I must try it x

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