Mini-Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet [2010] – ★★1/2

In this tale by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas (2004)) the year is 1799, and Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives with the Dutch East India Company to the trading post of Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki, Japan at the time of the sakoku, when Japan permitted only very limited contact with foreigners. Engaged to be married, de Zoet seeks a fortune and a high position to impress the family of his fiancée in Europe. However, “inadvertently”, he falls under the spell of one disfigured midwife Miss Aibagawa, who, in turn, aspires to knowledge and then freedom. In times of all kinds of persecutions and discriminatory policies, de Zoet has to navigate a very uneasy road in the foreign country through cultural differences and alleged conspiracies.

The book starts well, Mitchell presents a rather vivid Japan, and his story ends up to be rather “cinematic”. However, the author also presents too many characters, and when one central character in the story moves places, the narrative also starts to crumble. Another issue is that the main hero, de Zoet, comes across as almost too pathetic, hardly sympathetic and actually quite annoying (for example, constantly fearful about everything, perpetually sexually-aroused, and disloyal to his fiancée at home the moment he sets foot in Japan).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dejima-trading-post.jpg
Dejima’s layout, copied from a woodblock print [1780] by Toshimaya Bunjiemon.

Mitchell would like to present himself as an expert on the Japanese culture, but also displays surprising ignorance, and a number of cultural and linguistic “blunders” in his story. For example, a Japanese person is surely very unlikely to say “huh?” or “hah?” in response to mishearing something or wanting something to be repeated, but it is there in the book, and the ease with which native Japanese people in Mitchell’s story resort to sarcasm is quite shocking (Japanese rarely would, surely, or if they decide to employ sarcasm, will hardly do so with such naturalness and carelessness). Mitchell also includes basic information on Japan and its history in his story (it is partly based on a real account), but most of it is also so well-known, a five-year old will not be impressed. For example, the emphasis is made that the Japanese used to completely eschew chairs; that their traffic moves on the left-hand side [2010: 160], and that floors in Japanese castles sometimes “squeak” to give away intruders [2010: 44].

The author prefers action over description, and his book ends up to be almost exclusively filled with dialogues. That would not have been so bad, only Mitchell’s book is not the easiest to read by any stretch. Filled with big words that point more to pretentiousness, rather than to intelligence, his story also has the distinction to be poorly-plotted, while presenting a romance that is puzzling, awkward and unrealistic. The cherry on Mitchell’s pseudo-Japanese literary cake has to be again his excessive wordiness. Before we get through de Zoet’s Thousand Autumns we will also have to drag ourselves through a thousand tortuous mouthfuls, while Mitchell indulges himself in the prose that is very far from clear. Discerning the plot through Mitchell’s thick, pretentious prose becomes something akin to running an Olympic race in 13-cm-high Japanese geta flip-flops (yes, that difficult).

22 thoughts on “Mini-Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

    1. I would say that his Cloud Atlas is better. I think Mitchell is at his best when he is at his most imaginative and fantastical. When he is weaving these complex intersecting narratives and not trying to stay historically accurate as in The Thousand Autumns. I have heard that his debut Ghostwritten is actually a bit similar to Cloud Atlas too, and I sense that The Thousand Autumns was this “self-indulgent” project of his since he spent some time in Japan in his youth and always wanted to write on Dejima.

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    1. Thanks! Yes, I am giving up on him too, and he is definitely not on my list of authors to watch. I also did not get along with his “Slade House”, although, like this book, it also started well. I am now starting to think that Mitchell may be rather overrated as a writer (though he does have ideas, but who doesn’t have them, right?) 🙂

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  1. Absolutely loved your review, as always. I like it how you always go and actually touch on the nitpicks of it all instead of simply summarizing the experience with “at large” expressions, whether it was a pleasant or unpleasant one. I cringed when I heard that his Japanese characters would say ” huh”… Unless he based his research on anime, it is indeed not very likely to hear that in real life. Thanks for your review!

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  2. I so agree with you here Diana! I tried to read this book and had to stop after a few chapters because the language was so purple and ornate that it was almost impossible to decipher, also the characters were not likeable and were boring. Had I have known more about Japan at the time when I read it, no doubt I would have agreed with you on that too. I personally think David Mitchell is very over-rated and I’ve not been able to enjoy any of this books so far!

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    1. Thanks very much for agreeing! I mean, I thought I should be Mitchell’s perfect reader because the premise sounds extremely fascinating to me – “a historical fiction set in Japan during its isolation policy and follows a Dutch clerk”, only then the author goes so wrong with it all with his bland characters and his impossible language. And, I agree – Mitchell seems to be overrated.

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      1. Hi Diana, yes! that blurb and description of it sounded very compelling, that’s why I was excited to read it too. It is odd when books don’t live up to the blurb on their covers. That might be a good book tag post for you, or for both of us to do. Hope you are having a good week xx

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  3. Great review! I read this several years ago and recall enjoying it but the nuances of Japanese culture and history that you notice are not things I would have picked up on. Though I agree that the beginning was the best part.

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  4. I didn’t like Cloud Atlas but warmed to Mitchell a bit after The Bone Clocks and Slade House. I love how well he does different voices! But I’ve started this one three times now (possibly four times?) and never gotten more than a hundred pages or so. I have no idea what’s “wrong” with it, but it doesn’t seem to gain any momentum and when I start reading it again months later I have to start all over. After reading this review, though, I feel less awful about giving up on it. So thank you! 🙂

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    1. You’re welcome! If there is one book to give up on unashamedly, it’s The Thousand Autumns because, frankly, we don’t have a thousand years in our lifetimes to try to decipher Mitchell’s bland story which grows more inconsequential and meaningless with every page (to be very frank, of course). And, I agree, Mitchell does his voices well. He capitalised on this strength in this book too since it has so many dialogues!

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  5. Loved your review. I discovered Mitchell after the film adaptation of “Cloud Atlas” came out in 2012. It’s one of my favorite films. But I tried to read the book and I just hated the writing! Which was really shocking to me because I expected to enjoy it as much as the film. I also started “The Bone Clocks” (2014) and had a similar experience to what you and other readers describe here; the plot didn’t seem to gain any momentum, and the writing is so verbose and pretentious.

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    1. It’s nice to know that we are not alone here and that you also had problems with Mitchell’s prose. And, exactly, it’s a real pity because we know that Mitchell has plenty of interesting ideas. And I am sure it’s not like we cannot appreciate “intelligent” writing, but there is a fine line between that and just plain needless wordiness. Unfortunately, Mitchell’s prose is exactly that pretentious and unnecessary wordiness. Given his ideas and love for dialogues, maybe even his biggest talent lies in script-writing. He was heavily involved in the screenplay to Cloud Atlas and last year we heard that Mitchell co-wrote a script to The Matrix 4.

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