Book Reviews

 

David Mitchell

Random House

$26

 

Excerpt:

 

On Marinus’s desk is a folio volume: Osteographia by William Cheselden.

Jacob contemplates the details [of the skeleton], and the devil plants a seed.

What if this engine of bones—the seed germinates—is a man’s entirety

“Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?”

Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”

“Then where”—Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton—“is it?”

“The soul is a verb.” He impales a lit candle on a spike. “Not a noun.”

 

from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

“The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley famously noted. “They do things differently there.”

 

Too often historical novels are simply modern stories dressed up in period costumes; the best historical fiction becomes a travel guidebook to that foreign country of the past.

 

In David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, we are transported to Japan in 1799, where for over two hundred years, the Japanese have successfully sealed off the country from the contagion of Western religion and ideas. The one point of contact with the outside world is Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki Bay, where employees of the Dutch East Indies Company are confined to conduct their trade.

 

The book opens with a harrowing scene, immediately grabbing the reader. But then it lapses into a long stretch of scene setting, and introduces a bewildering array of Japanese and Dutch characters, most with unpronounceable names (Uzaemon, Ouwehand, Aibagawa, Gerritszoon) which may understandably cause the reader to lay the book aside. And that would be a shame, for this is a gripping and beautifully written work.

 

The story is told mainly through three characters: Jacob de Zoet, a young, honest clerk, sent to audit the records for suspected embezzlement—To the Dutch inhabitants of Dejima, embezzlement isn’t so much a crime as a way of life, which he now threatens.

 

Orito Aibagawa, a midwife and the daughter of a respected doctor, is disfigured.

Jacob falls in love with her “beautiful, burned face,” as does Uzaemon Ogawa, an interpreter to the Dutch who has imbibed forbidden Western ideas.

 

Orito is sold to the powerful Abbott Lord Enomoto, who collects deformed and otherwise unmarriageable young women for his monastery, about which terrible rumors circulate (Depravity Alert.) Uzaemon sets out to rescue Orito from this “nunnery of freaks,” and the story ratchets up from there.

 

In addition to a compelling story, Mitchell steeps us in the past: how people related, how they understood the world, the arcane lore of their medicine—Want to know how they removed kidney stones in the eighteenth century? (Trust me, you don’t.)

 

The author of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, Mitchell has twice been shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Man Prize. In Thousand Autumns, he has written a fascinating travel guide to two foreign countries: Japan and the past—where, in both, they do things differently.