Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Mitchell)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell, 2010
Random House
496 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812976366

In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the most influential novelists in the world. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which preceded it.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a stunning departure for this brilliant, restless, and wildly ambitious author, a giant leap forward by even his own high standards. A bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history, it is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland.

But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings. As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?”

A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—January 12, 1969
Where—Southport, Lancashire, UK
Education—B.A., M.A., University of Kent
Awards—John Llewellyn Rhys Prize
Currently—lives in County Cork, Ireland

David Mitchell is an English novelist, the author of several novels, two of which, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He has lived in Italy, Japan and Ireland. Mitchell currently lives with his wife Keiko Yoshida and their two children in Ardfield, Clonakilty in County Cork, Ireland.

Early life
Mitchell was born in Southport in Merseyside, England, and raised in Malvern, Worcestershire. He was educated at Hanley Castle High School and at the University of Kent, where he obtained a degree in English and American Literature followed by an M.A. in Comparative Literature. He lived in Sicily for a year, then moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England, where he could live on his earnings as a writer and support his pregnant wife.

Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), moves around the globe, from Okinawa to Mongolia to pre-Millennial New York City, as nine narrators tell stories that interlock and intersect. The novel won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (for best work of British literature written by an author under 35) and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His two subsequent novels, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2003, he was selected as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. In 2007, Mitchell was listed among Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in The World.

In 2012 his novel Cloud Atlas was made into a film. In recent years he has also written opera libretti. Wake, based on the 2000 Enschede fireworks disaster and with music by Klaas de Vries, was performed by the Dutch Nationale Reisopera in 2010. For his other opera, Sunken Garden, he collaborated with the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa. It premiered in 2013 with the English National Opera.

Mitchell's sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, was released on September 2nd, 2014. In an interview in The Spectator, Mitchell said that the novel has "dollops of the fantastic in it", and is about "stuff between life and death." The book was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

In a Random House essay, Mitchell wrote:

I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but until I came to Japan to live in 1994 I was too easily distracted to do much about it. I would probably have become a writer wherever I lived, but would I have become the same writer if I'd spent the last six years in London, or Cape Town, or Moose Jaw, on an oil rig or in the circus? This is my answer to myself.

Mitchell has the speech disorder of stammering and considers the film The King's Speech (2010) to be one of the most accurate portrayals of what it's like to be a stammerer: "I'd probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13 year old."

One of Mitchell's children is autistic, and in 2013 he and wife Keiko translated into English a book written by a 13-year-old Japanese boy with autism, The Reason I Jump: One Boy's Voice from the Silence of Autism.

List of works
    Ghostwritten (1999)
    number9dream (2001)
    Cloud Atlas (2004)
    Black Swan Green (2006)
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)
    The Bone Clocks (2014)
    Slade House (2015)
    Utopia Avenue (2020)
(Bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/4/2014.)

Book Reviews 
David Mitchell has traded in the experimental, puzzlelike pyrotechnics of Ghostwritten and Number9Dream for a fairly straight-ahead story line and a historical setting. He's meticulously reconstructed the lost world of Edo-era Japan, and in doing so he's created his most conventional but most emotionally engaging novel yet: it's as if an acrobatic but show-offy performance artist, adept at mimicry, ventriloquism and cerebral literary gymnastics, had decided to do an old-fashioned play and, in the process, proved his chops as an actor.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

If any readers have doubted that David Mitchell is phenomenally talented and capable of vaulting wonders on the page, they have been heretofore silent. Mitchell is almost universally acknowledged as the real deal. His best-known book, Cloud Atlas, is one of those how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it? modern classics that no doubt is—and should be—read by any student of contemporary fiction…[The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet] confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive.
Dave Eggers - New York Times Book Review

[Mitchell] startles us again with a rich historical romance set in feudal Japan, an epic of sacrificial love, clashing civilizations and enemies who won't rest until whole family lines have been snuffed out. Yes, the novelist who's been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale. It's not too early to suggest that Mitchell can triumph in any genre he chooses.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

When a Dutch trader falls in love with a Japanese midwife who is also the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor in 19th-century Japan, you can be sure that the emotional and cultural clashes will be significant. The Thousand Days of Jacob de Zoet is a historical romance novel by Davd Mitchell, gifted author of Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. Here, Mitchell melds history and literature into a satisfying blend.
Christian Science Monitor

Mitchell’s rightly been hailed as a virtuoso genius for his genre-bending, fiercely intelligent novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Now he takes something of a busman’s holiday with this majestic historical romance set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, where young, naive Jacob de Zoet arrives on the small manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor as part of a contingent of Dutch East Indies officials charged with cleaning up the trading station’s entrenched culture of corruption. Though engaged to be married in the Netherlands, he quickly falls in hopeless love with Orito Aibagawa, a Dutch-trained Japanese midwife and promising student of Marinus, the station’s resident physician. Their “courtship” is strained, as foreigners are prohibited from setting foot on the Japanese mainland, and the only relationships permitted between Japanese women and foreign men on Dejima are of the paid variety. Jacob has larger trouble, though; when he refuses to sign off on a bogus shipping manifest, his stint on Dejima is extended and he’s demoted, stuck in the service of a vengeful fellow clerk. Meanwhile, Orito’s father dies deeply in debt, and her stepmother sells her into service at a mountaintop shrine where her midwife skills are in high demand, she soon learns, because of the extraordinarily sinister rituals going on in the secretive shrine. This is where the slow-to-start plot kicks in, and Mitchell pours on the heat with a rescue attempt by Orito’s first love, Uzaemon, who happens to be Jacob’s translator and confidant. Mitchell’s ventriloquism is as sharp as ever; he conjures men of Eastern and Western science as convincingly as he does the unscrubbed sailor rabble. Though there are more than a few spots of embarrassingly bad writing (“How scandalized Nagasaki shall be, thinks Uzaemon, if the truth is ever known”), Mitchell’s talent still shines through, particularly in the novel’s riveting final act, a pressure-cooker of tension, character work, and gorgeous set pieces. It’s certainly no Cloud Atlas, but it is a dense and satisfying historical with literary brawn and stylistic panache.
Publishers Weekly

It is a rare novel that's so captivating that the reader feels transported through time and fully immersed in an unfamiliar culture and place, and this is such a novel. Mitchell, a Man Booker Prize finalist for Cloud Atlas, returns with a story set at the turn of the 18th century around Dejima, an artificial island located in Nagasaki Bay and used as a trade outpost by the Dutch East Indies Company. A small group of mostly Dutch merchants lives on Dejima under the watchful eye of Japanese guards, government officials, and translators. Clerk Jacob de Zoet comes to Dejima for a period of five years to make his fortune and return to marry his wealthy fiancee in Holland. An honest man, Jacob intends to put the company's financial records in order and root out corruption, but after meeting midwife Orito Aibagawa, he becomes entangled in events far more sinister than forged ledgers. Verdict: this painstakingly researched and original novel is hard to pin to any one genre, for it is a historical novel and cultural study with plenty of intrigue and mystery mixed in. It is intelligent and utterly readable at the same time. Highly recommended. —Shaunna Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA
Library Journal

Another Booker Prize nomination is likely to greet this ambitious and fascinating fifth novel—a full-dress historical, and then some-from the prodigally gifted British author (Black Swan Green, 2006, etc.). In yet another departure from the postmodern Pynchonian intricacy of his earlier fiction, this is the story of a devout young Dutch Calvinist (the eponymous Jacob) sent in 1799 to Japan, where the Dutch East India Company, aka the VOC, had opened trade routes more than two centuries earlier. But now the Company is threatened by the envious British Empire, which seeks to appropriate the Far East's rich commercial opportunities. Jacob's purpose is to acquire sufficient wealth and experience to earn the hand of his fiancee Anna. But his mission is to serve as a ship's clerk while simultaneously investigating charges of corruption against the Company's powerful Chief Resident. When a scandal involving the seizure of the much-desired commodity of copper is manipulated to implicate Jacob, he is posted to the artificially constructed island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, becoming a de facto prisoner of an insular little world of rigorously patterned and controlled cultural-and commercial-rituals. Meanwhile, the story of Aibagawa Orita, a facially disfigured (hence unmarriageable) midwife authorized to study with the Company's doctor (the saturnine Marinus, a kind of Pangloss to Jacob's earnest Candide), punished for having aspired beyond her station, and the moving story of her planned escape from servitude and reunion with the beloved (Uzaeman) forbidden to marry her (which contains deft echoes of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Ondaatje's The English Patient), mocks, as it exalts, Jacob's concealed love for this extraordinary woman. The story climaxes as British forces challenge the Dutch hold on the East's riches, and Jacob's long ordeal hurtles toward its conclusion. It's as difficult to put this novel down as it is to overestimate Mitchell's virtually unparalleled mastery of dramatic construction, illuminating characterizations and insight into historical conflict and change. Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable, and right on the money.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book: • How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
1. What is the purpose of Dejima? Why do the Japanese wish to isolate European traders from their society, walling them off on a man-made island?

2. How do the Europeans and the Japanese view one another in this novel? What stereotypes do the Europeans have toward the Japanese? Why are Europeans determined to break through the barriers errected by the Shoguns—are their motives humanistic or mercenary...principled or unprincipled?

3. In an interview with a Japanese newspaper, David Mitchell said his intention was to "write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives." Do you think Mitchell succeeded in being even-handed to both cultures?

4. This book also explores the clash between science and superstition; or the European enlightenment and intuition. How do those two different ways of knowing play out in The Thousand Autumns?

5. Jacob is a devout Christian. Are his religious ideals challenged or altered in any way? How do the Japanese view the religion of the Europeans?

6. Jacob is referred to as "an honest soul in a human swamp of crocodiles, a sharp quill among blunt nibs." How well does this passage describe his character? How else would you describe Jacob; what other personality/character traits does he possess?

7. Is Jacob naive to see right and wrong as "moral bookkeeping" and to believe "all that matters is truth"? How difficult is it in this book to define, or discern, or prove what is true?

8. Mitchell is interested in language. How powerful are the story's translators? What role do translators play in protecting—or distorting—meaning and truth through the use of language? Can translation ever penetrate the meaning of another language?

9. Talk about the numerous moral dilemmas faced by Ogawa Uzaemon? Does he make the right choices...with regards to his parents, his wife, Orito, and Jacob?

10. Discuss Japanese society: especially the highly stratified social order, including the role and of women and the restrictions placed on them. Is Japanese society more, or less, hierarchical than European society?

11. How would you describe Orito Aibagawa? What is her role in Japanese society—in what ways does Japanese culture restrict, even debase Orito. What makes Jacob fall in love with her when he is already committed to Anna back home?

12. Why does Orito decide to return to the shrine? Would you have returned?

13. Discuss John Penhaligon and the pivotal decisions he makes in the novel. Why does the Phoebus turn away from Dejima?

14. Who wins the game of Go—the magistrate or the abbot?

15. Which of the book's three sections do you find most engaging...or least engaging?

16. How would you classify this novel—as a suspense-thriller, mystery, melodrama, cultural study, or historical novel? How would you describe it to someone?

17. Was the book's ending satisfying? How else might it have ended? Does Jacob die a happy or fulfilled man? Where do you think he would have preferred to end his days?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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