Saturday, December 20, 2014

Finished: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Dear Kelly,

As previously discussed, we both enjoyed Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. However, this one was not my favorite. I really hope The Bone Clocks does not make it into the 2015 TOB, because I might be all David Mitchell-ed out for a while.

It's interesting to think about the two books in context, because Darrell and I have a long-running conversation about artists (me authors, him filmmakers) who are working with the same theme. This conversation started when we saw Boyhood this summer, and we spent a lot of time talking about Richard Linklater's exploration of how people change over time.

Given my experience with these two books, it seems obvious that David Mitchell is also interested in the profound impact of time. However, unlike Cloud Atlas, which leapfrogs hundreds and thousands of years into a bleak future, Jacob de Zoet goes back to 1799. The setting is Japan, specifically the city of Nagasaki, which was the only Japanese port that was open to Europeans for trading. Even more specifically, the Dutch are the only European trading partners, and they are restricted to an island in the Nagasaki harbor called Dejima.

The novel itself centers on Jacob de Zoet, who is newly arrived in Nagasaki with the Dutch East India Company, hoping to make his fortune and return to Holland to marry. However, after his arrival, he meets and falls in love with a Japanese midwife, Orito.

If I were to categorize my problem with this book, I guess I'd say this: the author clearly spent a lot of time doing fascinating research on the Dutch trade in Nagasaki, Japanese culture and language, medical practices of the late 1700s, etc. However, the book lacked interesting, compelling characters and conflicts to make all that research come alive.

The book has 5 parts, only one of which I would say I truly enjoyed. Part 1 (175 pages long), introduces Jacob and the ins and outs of the Dutch-Japanese relationship. The trade part was super boring and not that interesting to me. Jacob's infatuation with Orito isn't very believable. It's just not all that well-developed, and therefore it just all felt a little confusing. There were lots of characters with complicated Dutch and Japanese names acting out small, political motives that only become clear later, if at all. It was tiresome. I almost gave up.

Part Two was the only part of the novel that I truly enjoyed, about 150 pages. In this section, Orito's father has died, and to pay for his debts she has been "sold" to a monastery to be a nun. However, this is like no monastery you have ever heard of. The nuns are "engifted" by the monks as determined by the word of a goddess. The nuns then think the babies are taken down the mountain to the local villages. Orito starts to understand that she has not been brought to the monastery to be "engifted" herself, but rather for her skills as a midwife. Honestly, this whole part of the book is just awesome. I was trying to figure out the horrifying mystery of the monastery along with Orito, and cheering her on as she plots her escape. Also in this section, her former suitor comes across a scroll detailing the secrets of the monastery and he plots to rescue her. It strikes me as entirely plausible that I liked this section the best because it was purely fiction. I seriously doubt there were monasteries where the monks were killing babies and drinking their blood to achieve immortality. Because it was cut loose from most of the burden of all that research, it was far more enjoyable for me. Unfortunately, this section comes to an end too quickly.  

By the way, my favorite sentence in the book appears in this section. At some point, Mitchell must have found such interesting research on surgical practices that he felt he must include it in the novel. He includes a scene where a man's kidney stone is to be removed---without anesthesia or painkillers! The doctor is training another and describing how the surgery will be performed in front of the patient. Here's the sentence that's given right before the surgery, "The rectum of Wybo Gerriszoon releases a hot fart of horror." Hahah. I laughed out loud.

Part Three (130 pages) tells of a British ship trying to horn in on the Dutch port and Jacob's attempts to salvage Dutch control of Dejima. This section is probably the one where Jacob seems the most fully formed as a character, remembering his earlier failings and trying to stand up for what is right.

In Part Four (10 pages), Jacob has been in Japan for over ten years and is now a father. He meets Orito one last time and tells her how he hoped to save her, but regrets that he didn't. This is, presumably, the section that is meant to tie up the interesting Orito plot that was left hanging 200 pages earlier. It's not at all satisfying, but then again, I guess life isn't. Sometimes you just don't see someone again for ten years. Also, Jacob has this moment where he thinks about his son, "How quickly you grow...why wasn't I warned?" But ultimately, this statement even though heartbreaking in some ways personally (his son, like mine, is 11), doesn't carry any real emotional weight. The boy's been in existence on for 4 pages, we never saw him being born, growing up, or losing a mother. We don't know anything about Jacob's life for these past years, and so his sadness about the passing of time ultimately feel empty.

Part Five is only about 6 pages, and details Jacob's return to Europe after 20 years in Japan and his death of old age.

I don't know. This was a bit of a clunker for me. I guess with historical fiction, if you veer too far from "fiction" you might lose me. I'll take my history straight, but something about history with a thin veneer of plot just isn't very satisfying.

One more to go!


  1. "Hot fart of horror" hahahaha

    Yup. Flatulence is always a guaranteed laugh-maker. :)

  2. "Hot fart of Horror" is going to be one for the ages.

  3. FYI: I was with (the other) Kelly today and told her about the "hot fart of horror" and we laughed and laughed. And then we laughed some more.