Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

August 9, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by  David Mitchell  is an exceptional book which can easily be passed as a romantic historical fiction.  The book opens in the last part of the 18th Century in feudal Japan, where the reader is positioned in the middle of a difficult labor of the wife of a Japanese nobleman.  The baby dies in the process, however the midwife, Orito, saves him and gets her wish to study medicine with a Dutch doctor named

  • 496 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400065453
We are then introduced to Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk from the Dutch West Indies Company dreaming of making a fortune and coming back home to marry his sweetheart.  Jacob is an honest man, incorruptible, who is sent by the company’s new director to straighten out the corrupt books.  Soon Jacob finds himself in Dejima, a small island off of Nagaski where the not-yet-ready-for-foreigners Japanese government performs trade and exchange.  Dejima is a universe upon itself filled with corrupt Dutch officials, sailors, Japanese magistrates, interpreters and a few slaves as well.
The naiveté of Jacob causes him to be a small part of a petty corruption fiasco which is then held over his head, leaving him exiled on Dejima.  Jacob’s honesty proves to be his blessing and his curse, as he constantly misses signals from his Dutch companions as well as the Japanese business associates, which are comical to the reader but have devastating results for Jacob.
Jacob and Orito meet, and Jacob falls in love with her – only to try and rescue her from an unspeakable evil planned and executed by her step mother and a Japanese priest who sucks the life out of living creatures.  How does a lowly Dutch clerk takes on an evil sadist who makes Dumas’ Richelieu seem like the Pope?
That is the genius of this novel which equally contrasts the Dutch and Japanese perspectives while preserving a mystery and allows honor and decorum triumph over corruption and wickedness.
The first part of the novel is wonderful, the story is interesting, the setting fascinating and the prose is fantastic.  Mitchell’s writing is fabulous, the language is rich and extravagant and the story flows.  The author’s humor shines through the book as he incorporates little snippets of haiku among the narrative.
The second part however is overflowing with bizarre tragedy and the narrative constantly relies on the “meanwhile back at the farm (temple)” jumps in story.  The large cast, which was so eloquently introduced in the first part, seems to be a burden in the latter part.  The character studies so fluently staged are now disconnected across time and ocean.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an epic which is meant to be read slowly and deliberately, the tale is smart and the story is fun.  Even though the book incorporates shoguns and samurais, most of the account is carried by clerks and translators.  The epic rescue attempt in a sanctuary surrounded by snow capped mountains is no less exciting than the description of diplomatic rituals and the “arse-licking pilgrimage” one must make before meeting the shogun.

Zohar — Man of la Book
Dis­claimer: I bought this book.
*Ama­zon links point to an affil­i­ate account

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5 Comments

  • BookQuoter August 9, 2010 at 8:59 am

    I have the audio book. It's a lot of CDs. It might be worth it?

  • Greg Zimmerman August 13, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    Very good review – I think you may have liked the novel a tad more than I did, but I still thought it was a fairly good read. I couldn't agree with you more, though, about the fact that it's meant to be read slowly and deliberately. Question: Do you think Jacob was really naive? I'd say he was the opposite of naive – that he was fully aware what would happen when he stuck to his morals by not signing the document regarding the copper scam. And he took the consequences anyway. If anything, he was naive about how corrupt the island really was, but once he realized that, he knew what he was in for. And he only got into the copper scam 'cause he was tricked, but you don't have to be naive to be tricked, necessarily.Anyway, here's my review, if you're interested:http://thenewdorkreviewofbooks.blogspot.com/2010/08/thousand-quite-vivid-but-not-always.html

  • Man of la Book August 13, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Greg – I'm a sucker for prose :)I think Jacob had the combination of honesty, naivety, and intelligence. When signing off on the documents he knew he was doing something wrong but trusted his superior who was known as the man that came to straighten out the mass and corruption.An honest man among thieves..

  • Parrish October 28, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Mean to read this book, fairly soon, as this is an interesting point in Japanese history. The Dutch had been there on Deshima since 1641 and by the late 18th century everyone & their pet poodle fancied a bit of the pie, making this a fascinating place to fix a tale. Enjoyed your post.
    PS. did you know you can’t get your blog on kindle here in the UK.

    • zohar October 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm

      No, I had no idea you can’t get my blog on UK Kindle. Maybe I have to sign up with Amazon UK.

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