Like Proust, David Mitchell examines how the incidents of a person’s life fit together, how the different parts of the world come to form one world.
The English novelist David Mitchell is often described as a virtuoso of imaginative storytelling, and his fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is unlike anything you’ve read. It’s a strangely gothic, historical action-adventure romance, set on a Dutch trading outpost in Nagasaki at the turn of the 19th century. It follows a young Dutch accountant, Jacob de Zoet, as he tries to rescue his love interest, a Japanese midwife named Ms. Aibagawa, from the clutches of a villainous abbot; the abbot has imprisoned her in a mountain nunnery dedicated to occult, possibly abominable Shinto rituals (“I overheard some strange rumors about Abbott Enomoto’s shrine,” one man tells Jacob). Jacob must find a way to save Ms. Aibagawa without leaving Dejima, the island trading post where foreigners, by order of the Shogun, are quarantined; his struggles to do this more or less constitute the novel’s plot.
This summary makes the novel sound more conventional than it is. Taken all together, The Thousand Autumns is a strange, chimeric creation. It’s deeply researched, like a proper historical drama, but it’s also luridly melodramatic, like a 19th century adventure story. Jacob, an accountant and a serious Calvinist who has brought his family psalter with him all the way from Domburg, is the novel’s historian, a thoughtful and observant guide to the realities of Dutch maritime life in the year 1799. “Would that I had a sketchbook,” he thinks, “and three days ashore to fill it!.” Through Jacob we learn about what he proudly calls the “empire of middlemen” which stretches from the Netherlands to Batavia (now Jakarta) to Nagasaki. In the novel’s quieter moments, Jacob talks to the slaves and sailors who have come to Japan from around the globe, often by accident or in chains; he browses the bookshelves of the Dutch surgeon, Dr. Marinus, which are heavy with Newton, Voltaire, Goethe, Huygens, and Cheselden—the Japanese, too, borrow these books, sometimes illicitly. The world of the novel is a vibrant one, and Mitchell is alert to ways it has become strange in the intervening centuries. The book is full of testimonies like this one, from Ogawa Uzaemon, Jacob’s interpreter: “My precious wish,” Ogawa says, “is one year in Batavia, to speak Dutch… to eat Dutch, to drink Dutch, to sleep Dutch. One year, just one year…” In such moments, an unremembered past and an unrealized imperial future balance each other.
Jacob’s job is to keep the books—he brings with him a copy of The Wealth of Nations, and lends “Mr. Adamu Sumissu” to a Japanese friend—and thus to hold the empire together against the entropic forces of a world that can just barely be encircled by a modern system of rules. In the first place, he must protect the empire from the colonial world on which it obviously depends. This world is nicely described by the father of a girl Jacob proposes to in Rotterdam, who tells him, as a rebuff, that “affection is merely the plum in the pudding: the pudding itself is wealth.” Across the globe white men are in frenzied pursuit of this wealth—everyone is either a plunderer or a slave; many of the whites on Dejima were “pressed” into service by private companies or warring navies. One of the Dutchmen, a professional dealmaker named Arie Grote, recalls the man who abducted him in Amsterdam, when he was an orphaned street urchin: “I swore an oath,” he says, “never to be so poor again, come what may, that human pustules like Van Eys could buy ‘n’ sell me like a slave.” Jacob’s world is, as we say nowadays, unregulated, and he struggles to protect the capitalist future from the Hobbesian past out of which it’s only just emerging.
Japan, meanwhile, exerts its own force. While Jacob and the other Europeans live at the unfinished edges of a civilization that’s still coming into being, the Japanese are right at the center of a fully mature and complete society. Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate is, like the European world, essentially violent and savage, with the savagery hidden by an elaborate and elegant bureaucracy; and so even as it lags behind Europe technologically, it actually represents one possible future for European political and social life. “Machiavelli could teach the Shogun very little,” observes one of Jacob’s bosses, and in fact the Japanese whom Jacob meets are all prisoners of a society that can no longer justify itself, but no longer needs to.
Even so, Jacob sees in Japan a certain set of values which become important to him, but which are about to be extinguished by the world from which he himself is an ambassador.
“Northern Europe is a place of cold light and clear lines,” he reflects, “and so is Protestantism. The Mediterranean world is indomitable sunshine and impenetrable shade. So is Catholicism”—
“Then this”—Jacob sweeps his hand inland—“this… numinous… Orient… its bells, its dragons, its millions… Here, notions of transmigrations, of karma, which are heresies at home, possess a—a—”
He cannot quite bring himself to say “plausibility,” so a friend supplies it for him. In the end, Japan puts into relief the linearity of his European spirituality, which feels insufficient to the complexity of the world he’s encountered abroad, and hopelessly contaminated by money and work. Perhaps, Jacob feels, some combination of European and Western spiritualities would help him make sense of his world. Unfortunately, though, he can’t be a citizen of the world—in this lifetime at least, he can only be a Dutchman.
The novel conjures up these realities so vividly, with the strikingly inventive open-mindedness for which Mitchell is often praised. So it’s particularly strange that, in other respects, it’s not only a conventional book, but deliberately and even absurdly conventional. There’s a charisma to Mitchell’s storytelling, but the novel is often gripping in the manner of an action movie. A secret force of samurai mercenaries attacks a secluded nunnery, climbing through dewy mountains in silence; a Prussian sailor makes a narrow escape from cannibals who plan to tear out his heart and eat it along with those of his companions. There are twists and turns in the plot, but they happen within the safe confines of genre, and so can’t be truly surprising: forbidden cross-cultural romances blossom and are thwarted; irritating characters introduced early turn out to be basically decent; you know you’ve met the villain because he looks “like a hunting dog listening to the sound of its prey.”
Part of the novel’s cleverness is that these tropes strike Jacob as unreal, too, as he combs through the company’s books on Dejima: In some ways, he’s a 19th century man trapped in the 18th century. But it’s also the case that The Thousand Autumns is a special kind of modern novel, one in which the story steps through genres the way a concerto steps through its movements. The love affair between Jacob and Ms. Aibagawa is told as a romantic comedy; it gives way to an involuted drama of imperial corruption and decline; this is replaced, when Ms. Aibagawa is kidnapped by the abbot, with a sensational Gothic melodrama; and to this is added a military adventure full of cannonades and fistfights. The genres settle in layers one on top of another, and suddenly there is a depth to the novel. A structure is being built, not out of events but out of textures, tones, and moods.
Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a forebear; so, in its way, is Anna Karenina, which sees the world by means of genres: tragedy, pastoral, farce. Mitchell’s novel isn’t deeply postmodern like Atonement, or like Mitchell’s earlier novel Cloud Atlas; one of its weaknesses is that the plot is never as surprising or vivid. There is nothing in The Thousand Autumns as visceral as, say, Briony’s experiences in the hospital, or as alive as Robbie’s arrival at Dunkirk beach. In the end, Mitchell is more like Tolstoy’s in that for him the world, which is essentially beyond knowing, is best understood by layering smaller, more knowable worlds atop one another.
Jacob has a happy memory from childhood in which he tells his uncle, a pastor, that just as one man can be Pastor de Zoet of Domburg and “Geertje’s and my uncle” and “Mother’s brother,” so God, His Son, and the Holy Spirit are an indivisible Trinity. His reward was the one kiss his uncle ever gave him: wordless, respectful, and here, on his forehead. This is the central idea of The Thousand Autumns; Mitchell, who’s often compared to Borges or Nabokov, is actually very Proustian in this respect. He wants to know how the diverse incidents of a person’s life fit together to form one shape; how the different parts of the world are related, and come to form one world; how 18th, 19th, and 21st century lives relate to one another. His main interest in this novel is in the way that, to know the whole, you must know many partial versions of it. His has a storyteller’s sense of what the parts must be—and his sense of the whole is, to use Jacob’s word, “numinous.”
In certain ways Mitchell’s reputation as a kind of literary mad scientist can be misleading. He does invent a great deal, and tell a lot of stories, but “the truth of a myth,” as Jacob explains, “is not its words but its patterns.” Mitchell is as much a synthesizer as an inventor; he finds the common patterns in the stories he invents. The aesthetic of The Thousand Autumns isn’t, ultimately, one of madcap invention. It’s subtle, patterned, and even a little Japanese. Every life is lived in an enclosed room—but it’s a Japanese room, in which, as Mitchell puts it, “Creation’s light is pure on the papered window.” It’s all about the way the light from one world falls onto the lines of another.