The appeal of David Mitchell's work has just begun to sink in this side of the Atlantic. A popular author of the last decade in Britain, Mitchell's interwoven stories and myriad voices are now being mentioned over a glass of Italian wine, between parents at birthday parties, and discussed in Brooklyn brownstones. Mitchell writes with an uncanny appreciation for beauty as well and his stories are rooted in a developed structure of suspense and complexity.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the title of Mitchell's most recent novel. The story's backdrop is Japan at the turn of the 18th century. Jacob de Zoet finds himself on a fool's errand in Nagasaki, the only trading post permitted on Japan's jealously guarded empire. He is the clever and endearing protagonist of Mitchell’s sixth novel, a Dutch clerk on the ship Shenandoah. At the Dutch trading company's behest, the crew of the Shenandoah arrives to cleanse the post of corruption and abuse of power. With a moral compass pointed toward Christ and honorable dismissal of his rising golden star, Jacob finds himself caught within a culture he does not know and a community of rakish sailors, few of whom he can trust.
Jacob’s expectations are continuously disappointed. The reader has a vested interest in the honorable, love sick but savvy clerk. He is kind and alert to the fascinations of a foreign country. The reader’s hopes rise with his and Mitchell’s prose promises the possibility of a happy resolution up until the final word.
Mitchell presents an ably researched account of Japan and its circumstances as the 1700s came to a close. The language and behaviors of the sailors are as colorful as one might imagine. Their lives are rarely more than a string of misfortunes and their immorality and greed are the consequences. Sentiments are aligned early on in favor of the Japanese but Mitchell makes sure there is good and evil in both camps.
A crux of the novel is Jacob’s adoration of a Japanese midwife. The reader’s first glimpse Orito Abigawa shows her attending a complicated birth. Her skill and character are on display and seeing through her eyes makes her personality appealing. But it is difficult to pinpoint why Jacob is entranced by her, as he is not privy to these scenes. The love that he professes both for Orito and his betrothed in Holland are vague and hard to locate. Jacob is human and thus flawed; his gestures toward Orito are belated and his delay is disastrous.
In the second half of The Thousand Autumns, one reads from Orito’s point of view. The sinister Lord Enamoto runs a secluded convent populated by servants of the goddess; they are deformed women rescued from brothels and brought to a better life. What Orito discovers as an inmate of the mountain walls is disturbing and devastating to the men who love her. As plans are put into motion for rescue and escape, Mitchell plays on the disgust and fear felt for Enamoto and the respect for Orito. His approach is pitch-perfect.
Mitchell’s authorial expertise lies in his ability to convincingly create a multitude of viewpoints. In his previous books, Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, the novels are based on the structure of changing voices, intersecting storylines and time frames. The Thousand Autumns changes point of view with less purpose. Instead of figuring as a flourish of the novel, the story depends on it. A voice must be given to characters from all for the plot to function. The changing voice loses its regularity and the lost focus detracts from the honorable, exotic nature of Jacob’s revelations and the tragedy of Orito’s fate.
Although there are disappointments, each life Mitchell illustrates contains surprise and deft moves of plot and language. His fiction deserves more discussion at the dinner table.