Book review of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," a novel by David Mitchell

By Ron Charles
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; C01


By David Mitchell

Random House. 479 pp. $26

A decade ago, Granta, the Guardian and the Mail on Sunday marked David Mitchell as one of Britain's best young writers. Anybody who considered that judgment premature must be nursing his bitterness in a dank basement somewhere.

Starting with "Ghostwritten" and "Number9Dream," Mitchell fused coincidence and fate, reality and fantasy in nested, refracted stories that could drive M.C. Escher mad. In 2004, his American publisher timidly brought out "Cloud Atlas" only in paperback, but readers in this country were just as enthusiastic as his British fans, and that mind-bending masterpiece was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Then in 2006, as his reputation was starting to coalesce as a writer of super-sophisticated speculative fiction, he repressed his trademark trickery and released "Black Swan Green," a perfectly charming autobiographical novel about a 13-year-old boy.

And now he startles us again with a rich historical romance set in feudal Japan, an epic of sacrificial love, clashing civilizations and enemies who won't rest until whole family lines have been snuffed out. Yes, the novelist who's been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale. It's not too early to suggest that Mitchell can triumph in any genre he chooses.

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" draws us into the redolent atmosphere of those grand 19th-century epics by Melville, Dumas and Sir Walter Scott. Japan remains a favorite subject for this peripatetic author, who began writing fiction in his 20s while teaching English in Hiroshima. But this time Mitchell sits still in Japan, abandoning his time-traveling, world-spanning, intertextual sorcery for the satisfaction of a single (and singular) time and place.

It's 1799, and the Dutch East Indies Company maintains the West's only trading post in Nagasaki. Or rather, near Nagasaki. Employees of this potentially lucrative monopoly don't live on the mainland or even visit it except on special occasions. Instead, they work and sleep on Dejima, a fan-shaped, man-made island, surrounded by a high wall and connected to Nagasaki by a heavily guarded bridge. This gracious prison is a striking manifestation of Japan's determination to avoid exposure or contamination, a policy set down almost 200 years earlier by the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu.

But speaking of the shogun, don't expect James Clavell's slashing saga. There are blood-curdling moments during this cerebral thriller, and an outrageous 600-year-old sadist who sounds like Dr. Fu Manchu as chairman of Goldman Sachs, but most of the action is carried out by accountants and translators, not soldiers and samurai.

In fact, despite the ghastly crime at the center of the story, Mitchell exercises extraordinary, even excessive restraint. He mutes moments of crisis, breaks away just before a killing blow, denies romantic consummation and even abandons international battles that could change history. What seems at first a case of thrillus interruptus is actually a reflection of the novel's theme: the triumph of decorum and honor in a world of corruption and perversion.

Mitchell is working within a literary tradition stained by Western slurs about the inscrutable ways of orientals, their seductive mysticism and occult sensuality, but he represents and deconstructs those racist stereotypes with a shipload of fascinating domestic and imported characters. Several years ago, while composing this story, he told a Japanese newspaper, "My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives." And to a remarkable extent, "Thousand Autumns" does just that, illuminating the whole spectrum of villainy and virtue in both these imperial cultures.

At the electric point of contact between East and West stands our hero, Jacob de Zoet, earnest and incorruptible, clinging to a contraband copy of the Psalms. (All elements of Christianity are strictly prohibited in Edo-era Japan.) "An honest soul in a human swamp of crocodiles, a sharp quill among blunt nibs," Jacob comes to Dejima under a new director to audit the company's fraudulent books.

Although his boss promises that the only danger in Japan is monotony, the righteous Dutchman quickly finds himself caught in a thicket of corruption, thwarted by pirates and thieves left over from the previous administration. Still, he's thoroughly convinced that in the matter of "moral bookkeeping . . . all that matters is truth." Of course, truth is a soft metal when fortunes can be made by melting it down.

In the first part of the novel, Mitchell spins out this ethical dilemma in careful -- probably too careful -- detail. Initially, the great cast of characters on the man-made island has just barely enough to do to keep the story moving forward, particularly one that rests on the ever-fascinating subject of accounting. But Mitchell is an author who deserves your trust, and he has constructed an apothecary cabinet of vibrant set pieces, including a beheading of petty thieves, a bladder-stone operation that will make you wince, and the arcane diplomatic rituals of meeting the shogun after "a ten-weeks' tributary arse-licking pilgrimage."

Just in time, the threads of this dilatory plot begin to pull tight around a young Japanese midwife who catches Jacob's eye. But before he can express his affection, she's banished to a cloistered monastery for disfigured nuns. At that point, the administrative fussiness of the novel's first section gives way to a fantastic and eerily told adventure that reads like an Asian version of Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale."

What unspeakable evil festers behind the holy rituals of this sanctuary high in snow-capped mountains? I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. Brave men will give their lives to find out during 120 pages of peril at the center of the book -- a legendary rescue attempt in a setting so exotic that it reaches into the realm of fantasy.

But even as the forces of evil ramp up, this remains a resolutely thoughtful novel about a country wrenched into the modern age. Carefully controlling all contact with the West, Japan reveres its official translators, its only windows on the world. And so language serves as Mitchell's central subject throughout "The Thousand Autumns."

Sword-swooshing samurai are cool, of course, and who can resist a priest who sucks the life force from flying insects or an assassin who runs a spike through his victim's entire body, starting at the feet? But, honestly, the real warriors here are the subtle translators, who must convey -- or sometimes distort -- meaning as it tries to leap from one tongue to the next.

Some of the tensest scenes describe diplomatic meetings where the fate of nations rests on the best guesses of linguists reaching over the horizon into the darkness of foreign idioms. Lives hinge on the conjugation of courtesy, the semantics of bluffing, the rendering of metaphor. Forget the deadly Ninja; it's the translator you've got to watch in this smart saga that never cracks a smile no matter how much fun it's having.

Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.

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