The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
Random House, 2010
In reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet I kept coming back to one question: what is the purpose of historical fiction? For a writer like Mitchell, it is more than just a nice backdrop with which to overlay an author’s own fantasies of the past. That kind of novel is better called a historical romance than a historical fiction, and little better than the average genre work more interested in plot and adventure. Mitchell is to good an author for that kind of simplicity. He’s more interested in recovering the past and it’s that recovery of a lost something that marks many historical novels. The line between recovery and fantasy, though, is not large and it is easy to move between the two and creating worlds that are only the dream of the foreigner. As José Emilio Pacheco noted, “the past is a different country. They do things differently there.” That otherness should not dissuade the creation of historical fiction, but should be a question ever with the reader. If history itself is capable of projecting the present on the past, then the novelist with the imperative of fiction demanding characters and plot has an even greater task. The issue is even more complicated when an author writes about another culture that has often been misunderstood. And Mitchell, in writing about Japan of the late eighteenth century, has undertaken a complicated and difficult task to balance the exploration of the past with a narrative that fits a modern sensibility.
The Thousand Autumns, at its most basic, is a story of cultures, perhaps not clashing, but learning about each other with all its attendant misunderstandings. Jacob De Zoet is a Dutch clerk on the Nagasaki trading post at the end of the 18th century. A good half of the book is given over to the interchange between the Dutch and the Japanese, how commerce is more or less welcomed, while closer ties such as learning Japanese or travel within Japan are strictly forbidden. In this sense, The Thousand Autumns is at its best showing a historical dynamic and reconstructing a way of life that few would have experienced yet has had profound influence on history. Of particular note is the contrast between the scientific ideas of the westerners and those of the traditional, one might says superstitious. It is an idea that has been explored before and historical fiction about the age of discovery cannot be without it. It could be dangerous ground, too, suggesting a superiority in one side or the other, but Mitchell is even handed in showing the two sides as they were. It didn’t hurt to have one of the central characters be a Japanese midwife (and an outcast) who has opened up to the sciences, which gives the reader a way to bridge the two cultures. Since the Duch are prevented from entering into Japan, Orito Aibagawa the midwife is the device to allow the west into Japan, both in a metaphoric sense as the one who seems the closest to the Dutch, and in narrative terms as the one whose life within Japan the reader gets to follow.
The idea of a clash of cultures creates problems, though, when the story moves into Japan and it becomes a tale of courtly intrigue and sexual slavery. Mitchell frames the story as an elaborate game of Go. It is here that the book becomes a great page turner full of clever tactics as De Zoet and Aibagawa each try to defeat the evil lord abbot of a temple that keeps disadvantaged women as sexual slaves and kills their children and the women when they get too old. It makes for good reading, but it is a stretch too far, as if that clash of cultures is at its apotheosis: the abbot who has no scruples vs. the light of reason. I have no idea if such a temple ever existed. It doesn’t matter. The exploration of the two peoples is side tracked by a samurai tale. It is as if Mitchell ran out of ideas about what the trading life would really be like. Perhaps one of the problems is that since Japan was walled off from the rest of the world for so long, a story about the interaction between the Dutch and the Japanese would necessarily suffer for lack of material. One of the more interesting threads left undone is Jacob De Zoet’s Eurasian son who is just a footnote, but whose story would be quite interesting. Perhaps one of the problems is that since Japan was walled off from the rest of the world for so long, a story about the interaction between the Dutch and the Japanese would necessarily suffer for lack of material.
The question remains, then: what is the purpose of history fiction? For Mitchell it is as much curiosity as something to recover. What you see in The Thousand Autumns is an author trying to get at the complexities of cultures meeting. In some ways he succeeds. The end of the book with its showdown with the British frigate and De Zoet’s subsequent use of that even to strengthen relations with Japan is strong. Yet the complexities of it all are reduced to a few encounters: science vs tradition; the politics of trade; and the perceptions of each others cultures as evidenced in some of the scenes between the Dutch and the Japanese translators. It is disappointing because The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is an otherwise well written novel. And in the end the answer to this historical fiction is, the fascination is in the exoticism of time as well as place. The past is exotic and it is hard to resist its temptations and not loose one’s self in the details (Mitchell is restrained enough not give us every single detail he’s learned). Mitchell is surely a talent, but I think he could stretch a little farther.