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A 'Thousand Autumns' In The Land Of The Rising Sun

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The critical word on David Mitchell is that he walks on water. Mitchell's first novel (written before he turned 30) is called Ghostwritten, and, like his more recent triumph, Cloud Atlas, it's the kind of multi-stranded, inter-textual narrative that automatically gets the label "experimental" slapped on it. Now, his latest novel, called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet swerves into the traditional realm of historical fiction.

The reader reaction, so far, has been ecstatic, I think partly because the suspicion lingers that "experimental" fiction may be too heavy on gimmickry and rather light on story and substance. For a post-modern wunderkind like Mitchell to pull off a straightforward old-fashioned tale like this one is akin to that perhaps apocryphal tale about Michelangelo auditioning before the pope for the job of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling by drawing a perfect circle, freehand.

Far be it from me to give the creatively buoyant Mitchell a dunking in the reviewer's vat of vinegar ... though I do have one small brackish water balloon to lob. Overall, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a beautiful novel, full of life and authenticity, atmosphere and characters that breathe. It manages to do what the best historical fiction always does: make a reader melancholy thinking about all the real-life stories from the past that have melted into air.

You know right off that this is going to be an extraordinary novel because of its setting: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet opens in 1799 on an island called Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan. As our title hero, Jacob de Zoet, first describes it, the "fan-shaped" island is man-made, "some two hundred paces [long] around its outer curve and erected, like much of Amsterdam, on sunken piles." Dajima is the province of the Dutch East Indies Co., and its tiny stone bridge over a tidal moat constitutes the sole gateway between samurai-ruled Japan and the outside world. Young Jacob has arrived there to serve five years as a bookkeeper, after which he hopes to have amassed enough money to marry the wealthy fiancee waiting for him back in Amsterdam. This island outpost of progress is packed with spies, prostitutes, sailors, slaves and con men. It's a sliver of the feverish modern world ruled by commerce, wedged up against resolute feudalism.

Pious Jacob withstands the usual temptations but falls hard for a young Japanese woman he "meets cute" when she runs into his warehouse chasing an ape carrying a severed human leg. I'll skip the explanation -- Mitchell revels in, among other things, exuberantly screwball plot twists. Instead, I'll simply say that the woman, Orito Aibagawa, is a midwife whose face has been partly disfigured by an accident involving hot oil. She's a wry creation, but (and here comes my only criticism of Mitchell's otherwise superb novel) when Miss Aibagawa's adventures take over in Book Two, the novel mutates into a Gothic pastiche, complete with a supernatural villain, blood sacrifices and a labyrinthine prison. Mitchell apparently can do everything when it comes to fiction writing, but he should have resisted this detour into the land of Twilight.

Fortunately, it's a wrong turn that's soon righted. Mitchell's chameleon-like gifts as a novelist are on display everywhere else here: in pages-long drunken conversations over cards; in the delicate negotiations between the Japanese hosts and their Dutch business partners; and in the fabulous action scenes. This is a novel in which we're treated to an earthquake, a typhoon and a naval battle worthy of Horatio Hornblower. It's the reveries, though, of the exile Jacob de Zoet that make the most indelible impression. At a decisive moment in the novel, Jacob runs after Miss Aibagawa to tell her he loves her. He's propelled to make this outrageous declaration, we're told, by the inner whisperings of "the Ghost of Future Regret." What a wonderful phrase: "the Ghost of Future Regret" -- the same ghost that should be whispering in your ear right now if you have any doubts about reading this strange and singular novel.

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