The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, Sceptre £18.99, 469 pages, FT Bookshop price: £15.19
David Mitchell’s first three novels earned him a reputation as an adventurous and formally daring author. In Ghostwritten (1999), number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004) he proved himself a master ventriloquist, adept at combining historical authority and postmodern acrobatics with a generous sense of humour. A literary amphibian, he seemed completely at home in each exotic location he conceived.
Part of the appeal of Mitchell’s early writing, though also one of its frustrations, was the way it switched between different layers of time and space. His work possessed a cinematic quality, hugely attractive to an audience steeped in visual culture.
In Black Swan Green (2006) Mitchell narrowed his ambition. Clearly shaped by his experience of growing up with a speech impediment, the novel focused on the life of a stammering teenager, Jason, in rural Worcestershire. It expertly depicted the ordinariness of middle-class adolescence while highlighting the way creative fluency – Jason was a furtive poet – could compensate for diffidence.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is closer in spirit and subject to Mitchell’s earlier novels but, as in Black Swan Green, the method is comparatively straightforward. Linear in structure, this is the first of his books to be written exclusively in the third person.
The action mostly takes place in 1799 and 1800, in Japan. Initially the setting is Dejima, a man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki, which is used by the Dutch East India Company as a trading post. Lest we forget, for the whole of the 18th century – and for roughly half of the centuries either side – Japan was deliberately isolated from the rest of the world. The Dutch were the only Europeans able to export its ceramics and silks, and Mitchell convincingly suggests the allure of this connection. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk who leaves behind a fiancée in Zeeland to travel to the far side of the world. Appointed to clean up the company’s accounts, he finds that corruption has become deeply ingrained. Most of his fellow Dutchmen are eye-wateringly crude, and their shenanigans allow Mitchell to pile on the comedy while also laying bare an unfamiliar chapter of history.
Prim yet intellectually curious, Jacob is a pleasing creation. From the outset he proves a receptive observer; he may be naive but he has a writer’s sensibility – and, rather tellingly, acclaims ink as the “most fecund of liquids”.
Homesick, lonely and often bewildered by the sourness of colleagues who complain of monotony, he slowly finds himself intoxicated by a Japanese midwife, Orito Aibagawa, whose damaged face makes her, like him, an outsider.
Before we meet Jacob, we see Orito supervise a painful breech birth. It’s an arresting start – the first of a number of admirably crafted set-pieces – and contains much of what Mitchell does best: visceral immediacy is matched by an easy expertise with complex material. Yet the opening wrongfoots us, and early on there is plenty that causes the reader to feel ill at ease.
While Jacob’s relationship with Orito proceeds awkwardly, problems result from his reluctance to lubricate fraud. He is compromised, as indeed is the Dutch project in Dejima. Then Orito’s father dies, mired in debt, and she is sold into service at a mysterious shrine. The story gravitates away from Jacob and we enter the shadowy, cloistered interior of 18th-century Japan.
Mitchell touches on imperial exploitation, the different qualities of Dutch and Japanese patriotism, fluctuations in the balance of global power, religious faddism, corporate greed, the persistence of memory, and the dangers and delights of circumlocution. If he has an abiding theme, though, it is interconnectedness, and it comes as no surprise to renew acquaintance here with characters and situations from his previous works.
Mitchell’s research has been meticulous. One consequence is a richly stocked prose that at times feels surfeited with minute particulars. Although his imagery is often unsettlingly precise, as when a character feels “wasps of pain crawl in and out through the stump of his brain”, there’s a self-indulgence, too, when “ramifications hatch from the appalling hush”, “rain hisses like swinging snakes” or the night sky is compared with “an indecipherable manuscript”.
The laboratory of Mitchell’s imagination is palatial, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet exhibits his familiar bravura. But here, for all the moments of brilliance, the chemistry doesn’t quite work.
Henry Hitchings is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Words’ (John Murray)