June 29, 2010
DH: For a long time I avoided reading David Mitchell, even as I marveled at the combination of ecstatic reviews and heavy midlist sales that Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas received. Strong novels, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet is one, throw off their own forceful karma, even at a distance. DM’s readers seemed like they were part of a cult: a brainy, literary version of Star Trekkers perhaps, and I didn’t feel like joining.
But I had enough of short fiction for awhile. My appetite was growing for long novels and long poems, for more extended vision, more marathon reads.
The Thousand Autumns approaches 500 pages in a beautifully produced volume. My compliments to its designer, whose name I couldn’t find on my galley…but you know who you are…you’re great. The Thousand is one of those yarns that calls out for a few illustrations within the text. These are very apt and I greatly enjoyed them. But my geek meter went up just a few notches when I saw them. Guy read, guy read, guy read.
The first nine pages blew me away. They function as a sort of an overture and by the time I reached page five, I was reading with my mouth open. This was the most intense descriptive writing that I have read for a long time. Our hero Jacob, is Dutch, and there is something of the great Dutch naturalist draftsmen in DM’s prose. When you see a Dutch drawing of tall grasses by the shore, you can tell if is there is a wind. DM’s writing is in your face. It’s that up close with the facts.
This is a historical novel that takes place in an “exotic” locale. The turn of the century from 18th to 19th at Dejima, an artificial island off the harbor of Nagasaki. This fortress of commerce is designed so that the Shogun’s government can keep its Dutch traders in their own ghetto but still have the advantage of doing business with them. You get the idea if you can imagine that we put Goldman Sachs employees on Governor’s Island in NY harbor and told them that they weren’t allowed to leave.
The turn-of-the-century setting mimics our own with its axial shifting of power: the declining Dutch are threatened by the rising power of England who they fear are about to supplant them on Dejima. The Dutch seem old-fashioned, like they are playing the last century’s game while the English are confident and armed with superior 19th century hardware.
Jacob’s best friend, a doctor on Dejima, plays the harpsichord. Jacob softens him up by plying him with fresh scores of Scarlatti sonatas. This is a small point but I’m a classical music lover so I get it. The doctor’s taste is retrograde. If he was up-to-date he would own a pianoforte. And he would be playing Haydn and Mozart, not Scarlatti. If his taste was advanced, he would be playing Beethoven. This Dutch colony is Jurassic, primed to be swept away in the new century. I found the analogy I was drawing to our own time a little disturbing, as I think DM intends.
Jacob makes his way in the Dejima fishbowl of merchant piranhas who think they are sharks. I loved the way his boss entraps him. Jacob, you earnest and very Protestant young man, you’re not going to fall for that? Times have changed but shady business practices are still funny if you can see them coming.
The most interesting feature of this novel for me is what I’d call “the displacement of intimacy.” Jacob’s love interests are removed from his sight once the relationship becomes serious. This sort of reminded me of that Twilight film series where a peck on the cheek counts as a daring erotic move. Whatever happened to fucking the shit out of each other, I don’t know. Maybe the young middle class don’t do that anymore in novels.
But this displacement is critical to the significance of The Thousand and its large scale. It allows DM to introduce new settings and new casts of characters, novellas within the larger novel. These spin-offs are part of the genius of this story and they are completely delectable. This is an adventure story to satisfy your deepest cravings to be a boy (or girl) again. And Christians rejoice! There’s a great fictional hero for you in our dear Jacob, immersed in a semi-feudal civilization where owning a psalter can get you imprisoned. He doesn’t give it up.