Trade And Trickery
Mitchell's Page-Turner Drawn from A Thousand Autumns, One Male Savior
By Emily Burns Morgan
aving experienced only one realm of the David Mitchell “cosmos,” Cloud Atlas, I felt a bit overwhelmed by my options for where to go next. Kathryn Schulz’s beautifully-written New York Magazine article on Mitchell’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, however, forced my hand. It was time to pick something, so I tweeted the book critic my query: what should I read after Cloud Atlas? “For my money,” she tweeted back, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.” And so De Zoet it was.
The rapidity and ease with which I can converse with anyone on earth, including a notable book critic, is but one of the profound ways in which the world we live in differs from that of the novel. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is historical fiction set on Dejima, a man-made island trading post off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, in the late 18th century. At this time Japan is, with the exception of Dejima, completely closed off to the outside world. Only the Netherlands, under the auspices of the East India Company, has access to trade with the Japanese, much to the annoyance of her European neighbors (particularly Britain, who will play a role later in the novel). Several of the Company’s merchants live on Dejima year-round, but only a handful are ever allowed to venture on to Japanese soil, and then only for business, under the close watch of their Japanese hosts. Technically, the Europeans who live on Dejima are on land, but in another sense they are completely “at sea”: the closest settlement of other Europeans is Batavia, another Dutch protectorate in what is now Jakarta, Indonesia. Jacob De Zoet, the conscientious but poor clerk from Domberger, Holland, sails to Dejima with the Company hoping to make his fortune. He plans to return to Holland in five years to marry a girl named Anna.
Jacob and the other Europeans are in a strange, liminal position in more ways than one. They can neither enter Japan nor readily leave Dejima. They are at the mercy of the Japanese on one side and the Dutch East India Company on the other. They have little control over whether or not and when their letters reach their intended destinations, and extremely limited access to information about the changing economic and political climate back home. They are beset by uncertainty from all sides even within Dejima since, of course, most of them are double-crossing and scheming against each other in the hopes of attaining greater wealth and/or power. Jacob himself is neither a hardened sailor nor a commanding officer; he is in between, though for all its drawbacks his position is undoubtedly better than that of the half-European, half-Asian men. These poor souls have no means of masking their “in-between-ness” and as such, in the day and age of the novel, belong and are accepted nowhere. Despite his “pure” heritage, though, Jacob, as one of the only honest men in the company, finds himself an outcast. Meanwhile, the Japanese are in a sense too solidly grounded; whether they want to or not, no Japanese citizen is allowed to leave the empire, with the one exception, for a very limited number of interpreters, of Dejima. Both the Europeans and the Japanese who come into contact with one another in this middle ground are changed by the encounter, and that is precisely what the shogun hopes to prevent.
Probably it is his loneliness and outsider status that causes Jacob to feel immediately drawn to a young Japanese woman he meets on Dejima, as it is her own position of powerlessness that causes her to eventually desire his protection in return. Orito, the daughter of a prominent physician, has been trained as a midwife—an unusual vocation for a woman of her time. Because she has a scar across her left cheek, Orito is considered unmarriageable. Nonetheless, she is afforded the privilege of studying Western medicine with Dr. Marinus, the wily Dutch doctor who lives on Dejima. Jacob falls for Orito, and despite his promise to Anna, pursues her quietly through notes and interpreters.
When Orito’s father dies, however, she is forced to leave Dejima, and Nagasaki altogether. In fact, Jacob had proposed to marry her and, in a last-ditch effort to escape her captors, Orito comes to Dejima to accept, but Jacob cannot make it from his house to the gates before Orito is hauled away against her will to a shrine in the mountains where, it is claimed, she is to become a nun. While the European plot of the book focuses on trade and trickery, the Japanese plot centers on this shrine and its sick, twisted, and long-secret purpose.
Once Orito is condemned to nunhood at Mount Shiranui, the book alternates primarily (with some odd and, to my mind, out-of-place if interesting exceptions) between the viewpoints of Jacob; Uzaemon, a former Japanese suitor of Orito’s who lives in Nagasaki and works as an interpreter on Dejima; and Orito and the other women who live at Mount Shiranui, which is controlled by the powerful magistrate, Enomoto. Enomoto believes he has found the secret of immortality, and in order to attain it he breeds the “nuns” at his shrine like cattle for their offspring. Enomoto and his followers justify this abuse by claiming that if they had not taken them in, the women (with the possible exception of Orito, who is eventually allowed special privileges since her midwifery skills are valuable to the shrine) would have ended up in freak shows or brothels, since they all have some kind of physical impairment that would have prevented them from marrying. Their families are therefore happy to have the women taken off their hands, and the monks can persuade themselves the women have a better life at Mount Shiranui Shrine than they would in the world below. In other words, instead of trying to help the women, the monks take advantage of their predicament.
Not a few times throughout the book I found myself thinking, “Why must women always be raped and subjugated for the sake of plot?” I get tired of reading such stories, although I admit the set-up here is more fascinating than most, and the actual act of sexual assault is never described, thankfully. Orito is a smart and sympathetic if not terrifically emotionally-rich heroine. More finely drawn is Jacob—poor, sad, steady Jacob, lost in a foreign land, anchored on Dejima and anchoring the book. Of course he ultimately manages to save Orito, as one expects and can’t help but desiring all the way through, so well are we conditioned.
So, then, there are a few stereotypical ideas at work here. Women are subjugated by men and even the smartest and most exceptional among them cannot free herself; she needs a male savior to rescue her. Meanwhile, the Japanese men, even the smartest and bravest among them, cannot bring off the rescue by themselves; they need a white man to intervene. Mitchell has said that his goal with this book was for the Japanese viewpoint to share equal importance with that of the European, and while there are several chapters that dip into the minds of Orito and Uzaemon, among others, the white men are drawn with more depth and breadth than the Japanese. On the one hand, I suppose you can’t blame a male British author for being better at male European characters. But then again I never felt a moment’s doubt about the authenticity of Marilyn Robinson’s John Ames in Gilead, nor about Luisa Rey or Sonmi in Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for that matter.
Mitchell at The Strand Bookstore in New York City.
On the other hand, maybe character development is somewhat beside the point here. The book is much more concerned with plot than spiritual or existential questions. Near the end of the book, after the resolution, Orito offers the following explanation of her role to Jacob: “…now I perceive us as surgical instruments used by the world to excise itself of the Order of Mount Shiranui.” It makes sense that Orito, the midwife, would use a medical metaphor, and in fact the quote seems indicative of the mood/method of the book overall. Two doctors play major roles, and the novel as a whole has a kind of surgical quality to it, with the characters indeed cast as instruments to achieve a particular end. Throughout the novel, various illnesses and violent acts against bodies are described in extensive, often stomach-churning detail. Due to the harsh circumstances of their lives, the characters’ minds are consumed with survival—they do not have the luxury of sitting comfortably and pondering meaning. They must act or die in so many terrifying ways. They are thus “in between” in one more sense: they are both the subject of and the tools with which the author tells his story. As such, they cannot completely inhabit either function. Perhaps the author, here, is also in between, observing his characters from a distance rather than inhabiting them. Perhaps that distance is appropriate for a book about a time and place where it was dangerous for people to express their true feelings and beliefs, even to themselves.
Such criticisms aside, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is a remarkable page-turner of a book that I very much enjoyed, and that is certainly worthy of a week or two of your leisure hours if for no other reason than that it utterly transports you to a world that is, no equivocation necessary, a million times different than the one you’re living in right now. The impact of such displacement may be subtle, but the universal truth that this novel acknowledges is also one it embodies: like Jacob and the other characters in The Thousand Autumns, one cannot help but be changed by even a short dip in foreign waters.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.