The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the new novel by David Mitchell. It is set at the end of the 18th Century, mainly in the Dutch trading post on the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. It deals with both the clash of civilisations (European and Japanese) and the interconnected lives of a vast range of characters. It seems to have had a mixed reception from newspaper reviewers, which rather surprised me – I think it’s a masterpiece. I took a little while to settle into it, but once it grabbed me, there was no release. It was often a struggle between savouring the phrases and quickly turning the page to see what happens next. The novel often slips into a prose poem:
Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill prick, saw, sting…
Nagasaki itself, wood-grey and mud-brown, looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes.
And there is a quite spectacular page and a half of rhythm-driven prose describing the start of a day in Nagasaki’s life that opens a climactic chapter late in the book. Sorry for the long extract, but I hope it whets your appetite:
Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike topped walls and treble-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candle-makers, rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottle-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers; lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses; heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses; prisoners haunted by happier lives and ageing rakes by other men’s wives; skeletal tutors goaded to fits; firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits; tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars,; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year-old whores; the once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores; statues of Jizo anointed with posies; syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses; potters; barbers; hawkers of oil; tanners; cutlers; carters of night-soil; gate-keepers; bee-keepers; blacksmiths and drapers; torturers; wet-nurses; perjurers; cut-purses; the newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant; the ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant; over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.
I see that there’s a Dutch translation of the book. I’m curious to see how that has worked, particularly with these prose poem aspects. It’s perhaps not a good sign that the very title of the book has been changed: De niet verhoorde gebeden van Jacob de Zoet translates as the unheard prayers of Jacob de Zoet, which gives it a slant that I don’t think is quite right for de Zoet’s character as depicted in the book.