The hallmark of the work of the British novelist David Mitchell is an irresistible vitality, an exuberance radiating from every element in the text—including his vigorous and inventive punctuation—and felt, it would seem, even by Mitchell’s characters, who seem to know that they’re not just in any old story. Mitchell’s four previous novels, including the sprawling Cloud Atlas (2004), had won him a reputation as one of the most distinctive stylists in contemporary English prose, and as a thinker determined to wrestle, each time he produced a new book, not just with the demands of story but with the idea of the novel itself. Several years in the making, his new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a rich, savoury brew of storytelling pleasure set—and this is no surprise, coming from an imagination that seems happiest when roving widely in space and time—in the cloistered world of 18th century imperial Japan.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Hachette, 472 pages, Rs595.
Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk newly arrived on Dejima, a small artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki. Dejima has been set up as a trading post for the local chapter of the Dutch East India Company, and represents the inward-looking Japanese empire’s one point of contact with the outside world. Jacob, a pastor’s son, has thrown himself into this rough-and-tumble world of trade, business, hardship and intrigue because he needs to set up a career for himself in order to win the hand of Anna, his sweetheart back home.
In Dejima, Jacob finds himself quickly having to learn the ways of an unfamiliar world, and to navigate the cliques and power structures both of the Dutch and the Japanese. The first time we see him, he has his nose broken in a scuffle. Soon, he is put to work investigating corruption at the trading post in years gone by. He fears the discovery of the small book of psalms that he has smuggled in (any trace of Christianity is forbidden by the Japanese), tries to scout for opportunities in the private sale of goods, and surprises himself by falling in love with a Japanese girl, possibly because he has so much time on his hands and so little chance to see her.
Once again, Mitchell proves himself greatly adept at structural wizardry. The novel has an intriguing three-part architecture, and one of these sections moves away from Nagasaki to follow Jacob’s love interest, a midwife by profession, up into the remote world of a mysterious shrine where she has been incarcerated. Every scene teems with life, released by sentences that have been carefully wound up, and indeed some of the dialogue and repartee seem as if lifted out of the screenplay of a very intelligent period movie (Mitchell has said that he likes to write his scenes very visually, almost as film scenes). In his 20s and early 30s, Mitchell spent eight years as a teacher of English in Japan, and his book hums with a kind of “mysteries of the Orient” view of Japanese traits and mores, which we happily accept because it is pulled off with such panache.
Unfamiliar world: Dejima, where the book is set. Tiseb/Flickr
But despite the care with which the book is built, the most satisfying aspect of The Thousand Autumns... is the novel’s relaxed and expansive manner. Much of the book is talk—Jacob in conversation with company higher-ups and with Japanese, menial workers of the company reminiscing about their straitened childhoods in Holland, a cantankerous but witty company doctor sparring with Jacob over matters of both the mind and the heart. The fascination of human minds rubbing against and feeding off each other is explored for its own sake, and many encounters remain memorably imprinted in the reader’s mind.
David Mitchell. Murdo Macleod/Sceptre/Bloomberg
Although the conventions for how dialogue is written in a novel—the quote marks that bracket speech, the little bits of authorial description of how the character is speaking, the breaks away from a conversation to something significant and then back again—are now firmly established, readers will observe how Mitchell loves to tinker with the basic elements of narrative till he has made something distinctive. His novel has more one-sentence paragraphs than any book in recent memory, giving the narration a thrilling speed and dramatic urgency.
This is a book with a real love of story—this may be surprising, but very few of the hundreds of novels published every year are actually worthy of this compliment—and one that confirms its writer as the best British novelist of his generation.
IN SIX WORDS
Original story, craft and narrative art
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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