Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An Atlas Of the East

Months ago, when I learned of its upcoming publication, I began an informal mental countdown to the release of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Virtually everyone with whom I've discussed books has had to listen to me rave about his 2004 masterpiece Cloud Atlas, and in what I felt was an otherwise decent look at his second-to-last work Black Swan Green, I couldn't help but include some fawning mentions of the previous work. This may be reminiscent of my consistent appraisals of Roberto Bolano, but even looking through rose-colored glasses, it's impossible to deny Mitchell's literary talents. That said, The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet fits into many categories, one of which is a genre that I have a tendency to avoid: historical fiction. I hesitate to disregard a genre without having read many examples, and I know that writers such as Philippa Gregory and the late Patrick O'Brian have followings that are just as ravenous as I am about my own favorite writers. However, I usually prefer non-fiction accounts of various historical eras, or, if applicable, novels written in those times, rather than contemporary imaginings (for example, I'd lean more towards Jane Austen than The Jane Austen Book Club). It's extraordinarily convenient that, even though I would read a David Mitchell novel set in any time period, it focuses on an era that I've always found fascinating: historical Japan.

The novel opens with Jacob De Zoet, an idealistic young clerk beginning a five year term with the Dutch East Indies Company in Edo-era Japan. The year is 1799, and Jacob is hoping to end the term with enough money to marry Anna, a young woman in Holland. However, Dejima, the island harbor off the coast of Japan, is rife with corruption and greed. Quickly, Jacob learns that his innocence and morals will face an uphill battle against the more worldly men in his company. His first meeting with Dr. Marinus, who will eventually become his ally, shows that nobody is immune to bad first impressions in Dejima.

"The clerk raises his voice: 'Dr. Marinus? I apologize for disturb--'
'From what mouse hole,' Marinus glares, 'did you spring?'
'I just arrived a quarter hour ago, from the Shenandoah. My name's--'
'Did I ask for your name? No: I asked for your fons et origio.'
'Domburg, sir: a coastal town on Walcheren Island, in Zeeland.'
'Walcheren, is it? I visited Middleburg once.'
'In point of fact, Doctor, I was educated in Middleburg.'
Marinus barks a laugh. 'Nobody is "educated" in that nest of slavers (Mitchell 27)."

Jacob eventually wins the respect of a few of the men, but this immediately backfires when he refuses to sign off on a corrupt deal, therefore losing a potential promotion and being ostracized by the majority of the company. To make matters worse, he begins to fall for Orito Aibagawa, an intelligent Japanese midwife who's considered to be poor marriage material for a Japanese man due to a burn on her face; even the hint of a relationship with Jacob is out of the question, since the larger relationship between the Dutch and the Japanese is strained, with the only acceptable "relationships" being between the traders and the prostitutes. Jacob understands this, but does everything in his power to interact with Orito. She's hesitant and distant with the young foreigner, and Mitchell sets up their interactions in a way that their eventual outcome could go either way. Their conversations are sweet, and Mitchell employs careful use of comedy to highlight Jacob's attraction to her.

"Her wooden slippers crunch the friable earth as she walks along the path.
Act, implores the Ghost of Future Regret. I shan't give you another chance.
Jacob hurries past the tomatoes and catches her up near the gate.
'Miss Aibagawa? Miss Aibagawa. I must ask you to forgive me.'
She has turned and has one hand on the gate. 'Why forgive?'
'For what I now say.' The marigolds are molten. 'You are beautiful.'
Her mouth opens and closes. She takes a step back...
...into the wicket gate. It rattles. The guard swings it open.
Damned fool, groans the Demon of Present Regret. What have you done (Mitchell 128-129)?"

These may seem like basic initial summary outlines, but, to use an apt cliche, the plot does thicken. To pay off her father's debts, Orito is sent into a perverse slavery, a temple of deformed young women who are impregnated by mysterious men. A rescue is organized, and the adventure then turns into a standoff between the Dutch, Japanese, and the British, who wish to make their own trading contract with the Japanese. In these sections, Mitchell combines his literary acumen with a fondness for breathtaking, suspenseful action scenes, the likes of which are only hinted at in his previous works.

"Cutlip waits until the gap is closed to fifty yards. 'Fire, lads!'
Splinters fly off the guard's boat's stanchion; the sea shatters into spray. One inspector crouches; his colleague dives into the deckhouse. Two oarsmen jump to their positions and haul the boat out of the Phoebus's path--and not before time. The prow affords a fine view of the soldiers: they stare up at the Europeans, unflinching and unafraid, but make no move to attack with arrows or spears or to give chase. Their boat lists clumsily in the Phoebus's wake and is lost astern in little time (Mitchell 431)."

It's impossible, unless this essay was to run pages upon pages long, to recap every event and character in The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet. This isn't a sign of laziness on my part, since other, more respected reviewers have written fine reviews of this novel, giving readers a decent understanding of the outlines, without getting into a lot of the secondary characters and actions, some of which, as Dave Eggers has suggested, might have benefited from some editing and paring. After finishing the novel, I read two reviews: Eggers's glowing essay in The New York Times Book Review, and the opinions of a critic I've had some stylistic problems with: James Wood of The New Yorker. Both writers explore Mitchell's work in the context of postmodern studies, since Cloud Atlas is generally considered a classic example of postmodern fiction. I was very pleased with Dave Eggers in his assessment:

"That book [Cloud Atlas], like much of Mitchell's fiction, plays with narrative structure while never abandoning a traditional love of storytelling and an unmistakable affection for historical, and adventuresome, settings. Now comes The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, which retains those narrative tendencies while abandoning the structural complexities often (and often wrongly) called postmodern. This new book is straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale--all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa 1799. Postmodern it's not....it's not an easy book, period. Its pacing can be challenging, and its idiosyncrasies are many. But it offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive."

My problem with James Wood came when he completely ripped into the works of Paul Auster. He's incredibly well-read and knows literature, but his reviews have an annoying tendency to become weighed down in random structural analysis that, while understandable, seem to come across as a salute to his own intelligence rather than a straightforward critique of a given writer. He offers mild criticisms of Mitchell, but eventually offers praise to the man's talents. In a much more detailed (albeit confusing) manner, he also goes where Eggers goes, attempting to place Mitchell's postmodern label in conjunction with an unabashedly historical novel.

"We might settle for 'late postmodernism, a term that suggests the peculiar statelessness of contemporary fiction, which finds itself wandering--not unhappily--between tradition and novelty, realism and anti-realism....thus David Mitchell can follow a 'postmodern' novel with a 'traditional' comic bildungsroman, and then follow that with a conventional historical novel...meanwhile, the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern."

So if we cut away even the most intelligent hypotheses, it's not far off to assume that Mitchell was intending to write a standard, historical novel. The research that went into The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is impressive, and even for readers like me who avoid historical fiction, it's a classic example that great writing can illuminate even the typically standard plot outlines. It's not a mistake that the secondary headline of Wood's essay is "What can't the novelist David Mitchell do?" All of his typical pieces are there: research, comedy, rich descriptions, and multiple, unfolding plots. And, while this might seem like a spoiler, he genuinely knows his audience and their expectations of hints to his previous works. He does this in one sentence towards the end of the novel, and while it may seem obvious, there's little doubt that he wrote this sentence as a wink to his readers.

"West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds."

Works Cited:
Eggers, Dave. "Empire Of Desire." The New York Times Book Review. June 24, 2010.

Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet. Copyright 2010 by David Mitchell.

Wood, James. "The Floating Library." The New Yorker. July 5, 2010.

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