31 May 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Brief Synopsis
This is the story of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk who travels to Nagasaki, Japan to work for the Dutch East India Company in the late 1700s and the myriad of other characters which he encounters.

Thoughts and Reflections
This story took a bit of getting used to at first. The first few pages felt heavy and laden in detail. However, before I knew it, once I had adjusted to the novel, I was deep in the thick of this intriguing plot.

The story weaves together a number of different stories. The main protagonist is Clerk Jacob de Zoet. His journey is a bitter-sweet one. His character is a strange mixture of innocence, stupidity, and intelligence. He is subjected to a corrupt society and one in which an honest man goes unrewarded. Jacob, for all his honesty and honourable actions, is often scapegoated. I found this aspect difficult to read, seeing a well intentioned person endure such hardship. Much of his journey seems simply unfair.

At first, I thought a key theme was something to do with fate or life's path. However, throughout the novel, I realised that the theme had more to do with life's circumstance and influences than any notion of fate. Other characters of Orito Aibagawa, a Nagasaki midwife, and Ogawa Uzaemman, a Dutch translator, are subjected to the unwanted influence of a powerful man in Nagasaki, Enomoto. They brutally resist the power of Enomoto in their lives, but their efforts are useless. However, somehow, through a seemingly random train of events, Jacob de Zoet is able to instigate a successful resistance, end a brutality, and free Orito from her monastic prison.

At times when I was reading, I was unsure why I was being told the story of a particular character. At one point, I even wondered why I was told the story of Orito and Ogawa, key characters in the overall story. Their story seemed to fall away to pointlessness mid-novel. I was then swept away on a different story that seemed altogether unrelated. It too was captivating, but it made the first half of the novel seem largely pointless. However, only towards the end of the novel do the stories come together. Jacob de Zoet is certainly a catalyst, though being a seemingly unimportant and powerless individual in the greater scheme of things.

Aside from the main plot and theme, the novel explores the treatment of slaves and the existence of slavery. The notion of freeing slaves or providing slaves with rights is very new to the characters of the novel. Some characters already behave with respect to slaves and resist ill treatment of slaves. However, the notion of freeing slaves is only beginning, but it's starting.

The style of writing was impressive. This is an aspect of David Mitchell's works that I very much enjoy. The book is well planned, beautifully written, character development if very good, the plot is not convoluted, nor is it predictable. He included a somehow very Japanese element to his writing style in this novel. A consistent motif of butterflies brought deeper meaning and bright imagery to my mind's eye. Also, amidst conversation or racing plot, Mitchell inserted short lines describing the natural world around the plot and characters; Something so simple as a beetle walking up a window sill or a kitten scuttling past a doorway. I appreciated these elements, which reminded the reader of the world beyond the events of the novel.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this novel. I would certainly say to invest the time to get through the first few pages and adjust to the writing style. Once you have adjusted, the novel is an great read with a captivating plot and interesting characters, themes, and motifs! I definitely recommend this one!

About the Author
Click here to see my blurb on David Mitchell from my posting on Cloud Atlas.

Things I Loved About This Novel
1. The characters and the interweaving of their stories. There is a number of interesting characters in this book, who are well worth getting to know.
2. The chain of events and how seemingly disconnected actions affect the lives of seemingly disconnected characters.
3. That the seemingly unimportant and powerless Clerk de Zoet is able to affect much greater change in an environment that he is hardly able to participate in.


Mark's Space said...

An engaging and considered overview Andrea. I've been meaning to read this book for a while so thanks for the prompt.

Ryan said...

I also enjoyed the hell out of this book and Cloud Atlas. I'm pretty sure David Mitchell is the best English writer in the world right now.