David Mitchell ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’

In the mid 1970’s James Clavell brought to us the arrival of William Adams in Japan and the setting up a Dutch trading post in Japan in the beginning of the 17th century, some 80 years imageafter the first Portuguese trading post was set up, amid religious wars in Europe, in his historical fiction novel Shogun.

Now in 2010 David Mitchell, with the same eye for historical detail, takes us forward to the early 19th century as the Dutch East Indies company, who have a monopoly on the Japan trade, ceases to exist leaving its trading post in Dejima isolated and its staff unpaid with no way home.

This book is one of my English lit targets for 2016

Parallels can be drawn between the two stories, where the main characters,  in Cavell’s Shogun Blackthorn (in reality William Adams) and in Mitchell’s novel Jacob De Zoet learn to feel at home in Japan and both have feelings for a Japanese woman. Both characters are steadfast and trustworthy in their dealings, traits of character which draw respect from the still feudal Japanese rulers. Both protagonists advance through their ability to learn the Japanese language and communicate directly with the men of power.

Contrasts can also be seen where Blackthorn is physically imposing but avoids direct confrontation with the Samurai, De Zoet is not physically imposing but has a stubborn rectitude, where Blackthorn is key to the start of the Dutch presence in Japan, De Zoet is there to ensure Dutch influence does not die with the Dutch East Indies company.

The novel opens with two contrasting story lines, the young De Zoet arriving in Dejima with the new acting chief of Dejima, Unico Vorstenbosch, a new broom to sweep out the underlying corruption in the Dutch community beginning with the man he is to replace, Daniel Snitker, who during his hearing and trial defends his corruption:

‘How else’ demands Daniel Snitker ‘is a man to earn just reward for the daily humiliations we suffer from those slit eyed leaches, the unpaid servant say the Spanish has the right to pay himself and for once damn me the Spanish are right, why so certain there’ll still be a company to pay us in five years time?’

And Orito Aibagawa, the Japanese midwife who miraculously delivers the Magistrate Shiroyama’s son using Dutch learnt techniques after the  Japanese doctor decides it is wiser not to be seen failing with such a powerful person:

‘Doctor Uragami was overseeing the birth…..from the comfort of his consulting rooms, after the baby stopped kicking Uragami ascertained that for geomantic reasons discernible to men of his genius the child’s spirit is reluctant to be born, the birth henceforth depends on the mothers willpower’

These two scenes are key to the remainder of the book when, as Vorstenbosch later turns out to be more methodically more corrupt than the man he replaced, blackmailing De Zoet who, in disregard for his own social position, refuses to condone his Chiefs actions and when Orito is noticed for her midwifery skills and is abducted.

As the story progresses these two key characters who meet briefly  later follow honourable courses of action which seal their fates.

Jacob gains his fellow Dutchmens confidence, due in part to his refusing to be compromised by Vorstenbosch, and is chosen by them to face down a British man-of-war whose commander,  Captain Penhaligon taking benefit of the demise of the Dutch East Indies Company tries to recuperate the trading post for the British crown.

Orito, who has been kidnapped to care for pregnant women in a remote  castle where a deranged cult has installed a ‘baby farm’, manages to escape but chooses to go back to ensure that the pregnant women do not die in childbirth.

This novel contains many characters and intertwined stories between European and Japanese customs and behaviours at a time when the advances in western scientific knowledge are slowly chipping away at Japanese feudalism.

If you have enjoyed other Mitchell books you will certainly enjoy this one.

First Published in English as “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by Sceptre in 2010

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