by David Mitchell
Random House, New York, 2010
On the longlist for the 2010 Booker Prize.
Cloud Atlas was one of those books I avoided reading because of all the hype. When I finally did read it I loved it and was impressed by David Mitchell’s intelligence and creativity. Now I want to read it again. Mitchell has a way of putting words together that takes me into his world. This is one reason I read books, to enter another time and place.
The Thousand Autumns is about a young dutch clerk , Jacob De Zoet, who arrives in Nagasaki, Japan during the summer of 1799. Japan, strictly enforcing a ban on foreign interference but desiring trade with Europe, has allowed the Dutch East Indies Company access to Dejima, a walled artificial island next to the port. Jacob, a pious and earnest young man, must navigate his way through unscrupulous merchants, devious translators and the thin veil of civility between East and West, while reconciling the trading stations ledgers for the company, putting him a odds with many of his collagues. He struggles with Japanese language and culture, misses his fiancée, may not practice his religion, and falls in love with the daughter of a samurai, a young midwife who is studying with the Dutch doctor, Marinus.
The novel is historical fiction, based on years of research. It is also a mystery and contains some elements of the fantastic. The reader moves about within the novel, from Dejima to a monastery in the mountains and back again. There are references to characters from past novels and a “moon gray” cat readers may recognize. I loved it all, and there is the language, the way this author puts words together.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese half-Dutch window…
…Glass panes melt moonlight; paper panes filter it, to dust.
Daybreak must be near. The 1796 ledgers are waiting for him.
It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.
Beneath his glaze of sweat, he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.
Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable as a women in a picture…
Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsicord.
…spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon, once…
The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.
Jacob can hear a harpsicord: it is the doctor, in his attic.
Night silence and a freak of conductivity permit Jacob this privilege: Marinus rejects all requests to play, even for scholar friends or visiting nobility.
The music provokes a sharp longing, the music soothes. From page 57.
Some of this novel reads like poetry, short, sharp, very lyrical lines, one after the other, in a staccato rhythm. This works for me, as do the various dialects, something other readers have found distracting. Language itself plays a major role. Dutch, Japanese, English, French, Chinese, translation, context and subtle meaning are part of the tension and mystery. I found the connections between language, culture and social structure to be a main theme within this novel.
And there are the historic elements, colonialism, war, the greed of trade, slavery, the “mystery” of the East, Japanese culture and spiritual beliefs, wound up with all these interesting, conflicted and very human characters, struggling to survive as best they can.
Last trading season, Ignatius whittled a spoon from a bone. A fine spoon, in the shape of a fish. Master Grote saw the fine spoon, and he told Ignatius, “Slaves eat with fingers. Slaves cannot own spoons.” Then, Master Grote took the fine spoon. Later, I passed Master Grote and a Japanese gentleman. Master Grote was saying, “This spoon was made by the very hands of the famous Robinson Crusoe.” Later Sjako heard Master Baert tell Master Oost how the Japanese gentleman had paid five lacquer bowls for Robinson Crusoe’s spoon. D’Orsaiy told Ignatius to hide his soon better next time and trade with the coolies or carpenters. But Ignatius said, “Why? When Master Grote or Master Gerritszoon hunt through my straw next time, they find my earnings and take them. They say, `Slaves do not own, slaves are owned.’ ” From page 321.
There are many layers to this story. I realize as I’m writing this, trying to put my admiration for this novel into words that, not only do I want to read Cloud Atlas again, I want to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet a second time, possibly a third. Thumbing through it, finding quotes, has me drawn into it all over again. For me, this is heaven.
Here is part of an interview with David Mitchell in the summer issue of The Paris Review.