I’m a few hours from the end of the audiobook version of David Mitchell’s new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It’s fantastic stuff so far–engaging, imaginative, complex, and satisfying in its richness. Here’s a summary of the book from James Wood’s review of the book in The New Yorker, July 5, 2010:
Jacob de Zoet is a pious, pedantic, upright young clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company, newly arrived on the man-made island of Dejima, in the bay of Nagasaki. It is 1799. The Japanese, enforcing their policy of isolation, confined the Dutch to their post at Dejima, a kind of floating village connected by a bridge to the mainland, and strictly monitored them. The Dutch were effectively prohibited from entering the landmass of Japan, except for the purpose of making an annual visitation to the shogun, in Edo; religious services were banned, and books of Christian devotion were seized upon arrival. Jacob is quickly involved in two difficult narratives: as an employee of the utmost probity, he is tasked with auditing the company, and purging its corruption (various employees have been fiddling the books and stealing goods); unfortunately, the man who has bestowed that task, Unico Vorstenbosch, the chief of the Dejima trading station, is himself on the take. When Jacob confronts Vorstenbosch about his dishonesty, he is suddenly isolated, without allies.
The second struggle also isolates Jacob: he falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, an unusual Japanese woman who works as a midwife, and who has been taking medical instruction from a Dutch physician and intellectual, Dr. Marinus, long resident on Dejima. It is almost impossible for Jacob to advance his love; he is not even sure that Orito returns it, and, even if she did, how could a red-haired Dutchman and a wellborn Japanese woman form any serious bond? But, before anything might occur, Orito disappears. Her father has died, leaving large debts, and it seems that Orito’s family, in order to settle those debts, has “sold” the daughter into a kind of slavery: against her will, she is taken to a remote rural nunnery, run by a powerful and malevolent warlord, the Abbot Enomoto. Just as Jacob fought to unravel the corruptions of his company, so he now strives to unravel the corrupt potency of the Abbot Enomoto and his cultlike temple. As an English reviewer has remarked, the Abbot’s temple, where the enslaved nuns are drugged and impregnated by willing monks, is reminiscent of the world of Japanese anime.
This summary is really the best part of Wood’s review, which works overtime to find fault in what is a very good book. He spends a good deal of his review dithering over the space Mitchell occupies in the contemporary literary world–is Mitchell a postmodernist? A post-postmodernist? A late postmodernist? It’s all quite silly, and I’ll probably write about it in a later post.