The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  – ★★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).
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).