The master of small things

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T H E  T H O U S A N D  A U T U M N S  O F  J A C O B  D E  Z O E T
b y  D a v i d  M i t c h e l l

Prospect, May 2010


“I got onto the wrong streetcar in Nagasaki in 1996 because I couldn’t read the signs properly. I ended up at a dowdy, half-restored Dejima [an artificial island constructed as a base for trade in the 17th century] and was fascinated by the place. So when I was reading histories of Japan later I would read those sections with greater interest. Then I read a book by Donald Keene, The Japanese Discovery of Europe, and it had lots of ends of possible novels that could be unpicked, unspooled.”

Over tea in London, David Mitchell is remembering the day 14 years ago when—aged 27 and not yet published—he made the accidental journey that planted the seed of his fifth novel. It’s a truism to note that this could easily not have happened. He might not have visited the city that day, might not have misread his destination, might have soberly visited the newly opened Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum instead. But our lives are composed of towering, tottering structures of chance and randomness: a fact that Mitchell’s early fictions potentiated tirelessly. We are blind atoms, the children of both patterns and chaos. What later harnesses infinity to possibility is the world’s indifference to our fate, and one of the quieter achievements of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is that it treats with irresistible pathos the path of a life whose vividness lies in an adventure that is so defining as to be unsustainable.

Mitchell’s first novels were less concerned with that pathos than with the sometimes geekish mimicry of the mechanics of chance that underlay it. His was a versatile mind in a restless generation, to use F Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, generating copious, dazzling, stubbornly inventive stories that embrace science fiction, futurism and the supernatural.

At 41, Mitchell describes his early writing persona as “Mr Young Postmodern, monkeying about with structures.” He also concedes that in the globe-spanning, viral first-person interconnections of his first three books—Ghostwritten (1999), number9dream (2001) and the epic palindrome Cloud Atlas (2004)—he was “avoiding the messy, stuffy, icky mud of human interaction, which is where we live. We live in that swamp, we marry in that swamp, we bring up our kids in that swamp, we die in it.”

His fourth novel, Black Swan Green (2006), took a step away from genre-crossing precocity towards messy interaction (though his voice remained in the first person). Now, in a kind of career in reverse, the experimentalist has written a long, linear, third-person historical novel, closer to Conrad than Calvino. “I hadn’t written anything in the third person and was rather afraid I couldn’t,” he admits. “A first-person narrative is a process of inclusion. Work out who they are, this is their story, this is how they think, this is how they speak, this is what they do.” Mitchell speaks with a composed softness, but when sure of his thoughts the words gather speed. “In the third person it’s ‘Mrs Dalloway bought the flowers.’ Who? Why flowers? Who said that? Where are we? It’s a process of exclusion. Infinity minus one. And that minus one is your plot, that’s what happens.”

The bones of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are those of a worldly period thriller. In spring 1799, at a nadir of Dutch power, a young bookkeeper takes ship to Japan, to seek a fortune working at Dejima (the Dutch East Indies Company is leasing the island). Within a year, he finds himself marooned by corporate decay and the Anglo-Dutch wars. Jacob de Zoet is honest, pious, a Domburg pastor’s priggish nephew, whose first act on arrival is to conceal from the Christophobic Japanese the family psalter, which saved his soldier grandfather’s life (the bullet is still embedded in its deerskin-covered boards). Later, one of his last acts in the novel is to re-enact that collision of religion and war, reciting the 23rd Psalm atop of Dejima’s watchtower as a British frigate’s guns try to cut down both the Dutch flag and him.

Between these moments the life of upright De Zoet is both morality tale and Realpolitikgeschichte—a history of politics in all its ugly truth. Taken by the particular beauty of Miss Aibagawa, a young midwife with a scarred face, he is ensnared in the intrigues that dominate the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal regime that controlled Japan in the Edo period (1603 to 1868). A powerful abbot purchases Miss Aibagawa to attend his closed mountain shrine; at the instant when the yearning Dutchman might prevent her abduction, he hesitates.

Stories of the shrine’s creeds, of sexual slavery and worse, reach him and his friend Uzaemon, the midwife’s former suitor, but an attempt to free her is a disaster. In an impressive middle of the novel, Uzaemon is drawn as an exemplar of the petrification of Edo-period Japan. Educated but with no moral independence, his inability to make the smallest personal sacrifice leads to his having to face the ultimate one.

De Zoet not only fails at the muddy business of human feelings. His honesty casts him to the bottom of the edifice of a trading company woodwormed by monstrous corruption. In one example, Dejima’s chief resident forges a letter from Batavia threatening the Japanese with withdrawal if they refuse to boost their trading quota of copper, then ships the increased quota as his own. One of the novel’s rare wasted opportunities is not to elaborate on De Zoet’s fall from grace; but the many facets of endemic fraud are brilliantly coloured. Mitchell claims not to have embellished its scale: “Oh, I think I underplayed it… It would seem they didn’t make any money out of [the Company] and that it was kept going artificially… It was a scam.”

When the trading ships stop appearing in Nagasaki Bay, the bookkeeper can only wait. Mitchell has no difficulty dramatising a narrative in its doldrums, embroidering relationships with a miniaturist’s thrilling attention to biography. The novel is marked by an indefatigable concreteness and colour. At every step you know where the wind is blowing from, the state of repair of the warehouses, which animals are scratching or howling.

“Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats;” he writes, “over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers; heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs…” It takes a moment to realise that Mitchell’s bird’s-eye view of Nagasaki, running to 400 words and closing in a masterly change of perspective, also rhymes.

This fusion of detail with the novel’s historic present tense might have been relentless, but a transparent diction and lightness of timing makes it read as close to a film as a novel might get. The result, he explains, didn’t emerge fully formed: the final novel was his third attempt to write it. The first, which was all dialogue, was abandoned after 50 pages, the second written in the past tense. “It wasn’t quite as alive as it should be. Then you put it into the present, and it’s suddenly working.”

Historical fiction can fail if it forgets fiction’s speculative temperament. Mitchell’s view is that a novel is “a dummy run of time,” and he doesn’t rely here on the past’s strangeness. He plays interesting games with names and dates: HMS Phoebus—his British frigate that arrives to plunder in 1800—is a forerunner of the real HMS Phaeton that sparked the “Nagasaki incident” of 1808. His research into Nagasaki, the East Indies, the Dutch navy, Royal Navy, language, medicine, political economy, foreign policy, slavery, is a prodigy worn lightly. The politest audience of criticisms of perfectionism, Mitchell does not excuse himself: “There are 20 or 30 basic human needs that any given historical period satisfies in the best ways it can—clothing, the lighting of rooms, medicine—and I’m… fascinated in how these needs were met, and in a way I couldn’t resist putting those lines into the book to pin it in its era for the reader.”

Yet the book is not only a novel in its era. “What was true in the past very often is what is true now,” Mitchell says. “Historical periods look different, but the human heart can respond in sometimes depressingly identical ways. If you write about corruption and integrity in a different historical period, you can almost by default find comparisons with the present day because these words still exist today for a very good reason. We need these words.”

What befalls De Zoet is, in one sense, not much. Yet so complete is the world-making that has gone before, I was ready to shed tears at the passing of his adventure.

When Cloud Atlas was published, I wrote in Prospect that what I felt was missing from Mitchell’s literary scheme was an ability to enact an ethic, rather than just talk about one. With this exhilarating new novel he does exactly that, lighting his hero’s life with brilliance and significance. He has been shortlisted for the Booker prize twice. If a capricious jury fails to crown him this time, he has still added importantly to the sense that he is among the two or three very best novelists of structure and human character this country has to offer.

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