I very nearly never read David Mitchell at all. If it had not been that I received a free (damaged) copy of his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas from the Waterstone’s branch in which I worked as a teenager, chances are I would never have paid him much attention. My reading tastes are mostly confined to novels published before the middle of the last century, and, I suppose, could be described as rather parochial in scope. So quite why I count as one of my all-time favourite writers a man whose novels are so absolutely unlike anything I would ever usually read is really rather beyond me.
His novels are, in fact, not at all my kind of thing. Spanning countries, eras, characters, voices, tenses and, sometimes, even dimensions of reality within a single volume, they are anything but parochial. Cloud Atlas, for example, my first Mitchell experience (and what an initiation!) has been described by the Guardian’s William Skidelsky as ‘a giant Russian doll of a novel’. Containing in its pages six vastly differing yet somehow interlinked narratives (from a boat in the Pacific Ocean in the mid-nineteenth century, to a holographic narration of an executed clone in futuristic, dystopian Korea, to letters from a penniless British composer in Belgium to his gay lover…and that is only the half of it), it leapfrogs from historical fiction to science fiction, from magic realism to something even more post than postmodern. Such towering ambition and chameleonic literariness should be intimidating, or at least, should simply not work. And yet this unassuming 41-year old from Worcestershire manages to not only get away with it, but also to create worlds, voices and characters that thrill, move and enrapture. His first three novels, Ghostwritten (1999), Number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), all share these ‘Russian doll’ tendencies, from which Mitchell moved away with 2006’s Black Swan Green, a more linear, autobiographical ‘coming of age’ novel.
Thus it was with some degree of interest that I approached his latest offering, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, published this month. It, too, marks a departure from his first three novels, but it is no less staggering in ambition and scope. Opening in the year 1799, the novel is set in Edo-era Japan; more specifically, the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, at that point a trading post with the Dutch East India Company. The trade with the Dutch is the only contact Japan, a country where traditions and culture are strictly guarded and Christianity banned, has with the outside world. In this restrictive atmosphere we find Jacob de Zoet, an earnestly Christian and conscientious Dutch bookkeeper whose task it is to attempt to clear up the corrupt practices of the Company’s former officials. However, the more the ‘corrective’ work continues, the more corruption continues to breed both within the Dutch Company and the Japanese officials, until Jacob finds himself inextricably and dangerously entangled with Dejima’s fate, as the Napoleonic Wars gain momentum throughout Europe and the British attempt to capture Dejima for their own uses. However, as we would expect from Mitchell, this expertly researched narrative is only one thread within the novel. Throughout the book there runs the undercurrent of Jacob’s forbidden love for the disfigured Japanese midwife, Orito Aibagawa, whose kidnapping by a demonic ‘religious’ order dealing in sexual slavery, infanticide and cannibalism is one of the more bizarre but thrilling parts of the book. Finally, Jacob climbs in station as political events unfold, and there is a sense of an epic of Tolstoyan magnitude, a personal story set against a huge backdrop of events.
Mitchell utilises Dejima expertly as a symbol of threatened insularity, and the tensions between the ever-encroaching European world are a recurring theme throughout the novel, whether it be the forbidden family Bible which Jacob carries with him, or the access to European medical knowledge which enables Orito to save lives, or the recurring problems (and political dangers) of translation and interpretation between the Japanese and Dutch languages. The story is intricate, and peopled with characters as vivid, extreme and expertly realised as those in Dickens, yet Mitchell’s greatest skills are his ability to tell and manipulate a story, to grasp a reader’s attention, and to draw one fully into whichever and whatever world he is creating. He may be one of the few young modern writers who has had a two-day conference dedicated to his work, but David Mitchell’s main talent is the reality of his writing rather than the hyperreality of his plots. His descriptions cover frequently the gritty, grimy, physically degraded elements of human existence (the opening chapter is certainly not for the faint-hearted), but also ascends to painting moments of exquisite beauty. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is possibly not the best way to begin reading Mitchell (for that, I would recommend my own ‘way in’, Cloud Atlas), but for his existing followers it marks an exciting and mature move. I simply cannot wait to see what the man will do next.
I will leave you, I think, with a fragment of one of my favourite passages from The Thousand Autumns; a rather Under Milk Wood-esque description of Dejima and its inhabitants towards the close of the novel, which begins with describing gulls wheeling above the port and accelerates into dizzying rhyme:
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…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.Arguably, with his fifth book, Mitchell has created both a world and a masterpiece. I am very, very glad that David Mitchell is not at all my kind of thing. I hope he may not be yours either.