Sunday, December 8, 2013

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" by David Mitchell (2010)

David Mitchell also wrote "Cloud Atlas," which is one of those books you've been meaning to get around to buying for forever. If it's anything like "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet," it will be well worth whatever you pay for it.

A couple of years ago, you heard a lot of reviews for this book on NPR. They were so glowing that you bought it for Liz one Christmas and she turned out to be just as impressed by it as Maureen Corrigan was. You finally picked it off the shelf recently and were kind of blown away too.

This book was extraordinary. Set mostly in Japan at the dawn of the 19th century, it follows the life of the title character. Jacob De Zoet is a young clerk for the Dutch East India Trading Company. The Company has had exclusive trading rights to the Japanese home islands for over 150 years. No other Europeans are allowed any contact with the Japanese. Built by hand in the 1600's for the Portuguese, the island of Dejima sits mere yards off the coast of Nagasaki and it is the lone trading post for the Dutch in Japan. The Japanese have shunned all contact with the world outside their borders.

For a citizen of Japan to attempt to leave their homeland is a guaranteed death sentence, and for those who do sneak away, returning home means the same thing. Christianity is considered an invasive, destructive religion and all references to its existence are banned. Dutch access to the people of Japan is highly controlled. Simply put, it is the most xenophobic environment possible.

And yet... somehow Jacob De Zoet falls in love with a Japanese woman. This is the main event in the story. The plot unfolds beautifully,  revealing small personal triumphs and conspicuous bravery, conspiracy, adventure, and politics. The villains are epic and the commoners are noble. The story is entrancing and the characters become intimately familiar. But the story is not what was so intoxicating to you about this book.

It was the writing.

It is absolutely beautiful. Being married to an incredibly talented writer has spoiled you so that something has to be pretty phenomenal to really impress you, but this was like few things you've ever read before. The prose was so soaring it bordered on poetry. In the fewest words imaginable, Mitchell was able to illicit powerful emotions in you and conjure in your mind exquisitely detailed scenes. His ability to plunge you into his creation seemed almost effortless.

At one point he describes Jacob listening to his friend play the harpsichord. Mitchell describes the moment's effect on Jacob like this:

"The music provokes a sharp longing the music soothes."

Oh, my God. Right? Who writes like that? In nine words he evokes so much emotion and empathy that you are instantly inside Jacob's mind. In nine words he describes something that you yourself have felt but never known how to express.

You love how books can take you inside the minds of people who never existed in the first place. This book was able to do this with a ease bordering on magic. Mitchell uses language like a master painter uses color. He makes you see things in a different way, he allows you to empathize with people you had never before known existed.

Works of historical fiction (you've read two in the last month) have the unique ability to place you inside a moment or an era in a way that history books don't. As wonderful as history books are, they can't quite take you inside the minds of the people involved. There's always that lingering knowledge that whatever evidence they left behind, no one can record all of their inner thoughts. You are always left outside of the people in history books. You are always an observer. Through fiction, you can become a participant. You can stand on the walls of a far flung isolated outpost and feel the shock wave of artillery shells, surrender to the fear, marvel at the inner working of a mind that is moments from death. You can see events long passed in a more personal and intimate way.

You are connected to everything that every human before you has ever done. This moment, with your fingers on these keys, is the culmination of eons of actions that other people took, decisions they made. Their repercussions have echoed through the lives of everyone else around them. You are a part of a massive tapestry of history. "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" allowed you to see the individual threads of that tapestry with a beautiful clarity.

Sacrifice is extraordinary, but not exactly rare. Sorrow is universal and intensifies joy for us all. Longing is just a pessimist's word for hope. For all it's ugliness, the world is a beautiful place. Love exists, and in lives that are often overshadowed by seemingly more important things, it is love that we each take with us when we leave this world. Love is what we all remember, not events.

At one point, Orito, the object of Jacob's affection, thinks "The belly craves food. The tongue craves water. The heart craves love. The mind craves stories." Mitchell's extraordinary book satisfied the craving in your mind for stories like few books have. But, like any satisfied craving, as time wears on the craving just comes back even stronger.

On to the next book!

P.S. The city of Nagasaki has restored the island of Dejima (although it's no longer an island) as an historical site. It's the 21st century now, so you can, of course, experience a street level view of the restoration site on google maps. You can virtually walk the streets that Jacob De Zoet walked (even though he never existed).

P.P.S.  As an amateur historian, you found a poignant irony in the fact that this beautiful story was set in, of all places, Nagasaki. Here was where the Japanese people first allowed intimate contact with the rest of the world. Fifty years after the events in this story took place, Commodore Perry would sail into Tokyo Bay with his White Fleet and the United States would force the Japanese people to open their nation to contact and trade with the rest of the world, and it would all be begun at the barrel of a gun. Japan would embrace the concept of modernization and imperialism with a disturbing totality that would soon shock the world.

Another 145 years after Jacob fell in love on that man-made island embraced by the waters of Nagasaki Bay, those same waters would boil under the heat of a man-made sun. 80,000 people would be vaporized in an instant by a bomb called 'Fat Boy.' It would be called an atomic bomb, created by the very folks who claimed that the people of Japan were barbarians. Another 120,000 people in this city that David Mitchell describes with such beauty would die hideously from radiation poisoning within five years of that bombing. Ironically, only 500 meters from Ground Zero would be the largest Christian church in the entire Far East (this is hinted at in the book by the presence of secretive and closeted Christians in the nearby countryside). Many, if not most, of the posterity of the characters in "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" would die in a massive fireball created by the same civilization that once sought nothing but commerce and wealth through contact with the Japanese people. The same city that witnessed a nation being brought into the 19th century is also the same city that would witness that nation being blasted back from the 20th century.

This awful, unimaginable destruction of the city of Nagasaki would prove to be the event that ended the bloodiest and most costly war in human history. Maybe the world would have ended up a better place if Japan had been allowed the luxury of being left to her own devices back in the 1800's. Or maybe not. The 20th century would most certainly have looked very different if Japan had been allowed to maintain her isolation. The conclusions of the past are replete with both obvious absolutes and countless ambiguities, but reading history books (and now historical fiction) reminds you that one thing is certain... the future is always a great unknown.