The article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Harvard Book Review in print and online. Original link available here:

Autumnal Artifice

Review by Christine An

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell
Random House, 479 pp., $26

The island of Dejima was fabricated in Nagasaki Harbor to float as an exclusive trading post between the West (or, in Mitchell’s novel, the Dutch East India Company) and the Japanese Empire. If you witnessed this insular, 19th century World as Mitchell creates it—a glass globe filled with limpid brine glittering with mica and heavy with autumn-stained leaves—you’d probably want to pick it up and give it a whirl.

In his fifth novel, David Mitchell takes such a world and spins it into a hypnotic historical fantasy through literary optical illusions both macro- and microscopic.

Jacob de Zoet, an intelligent and pious (but not papist) young Dutchman from the city of Domburg in Zeeland province of Holland leaves behind his uncle, father, sister Geertje, and sweetheart Anna to strike out on the good ship Shenandoah, all at the urging of his potential father-in-law. Upon his departure, he finds himself under the command of the iron-fisted Chief-Elect Vorstenbach, out to battle rampant corruption on Dejima. When the red-haired de Zoet arrives, green-eyed and hatless, the mercantile island is teeming with unprincipled men: international sailors, slaves, cutthroat bureaucrats, “Dejima-wives,” spies, hesitant interpreters, apprehensive Japanese officials, a tobacco-addicted monkey named William Pitt, and a top-notch hospital. The hospital is under the erudite direction of Dr. Lucas Marinus, and Jacob audits his way through the company’s records in earnest, but eventually enters in a shady private deal with the impassive Lord Abbot Enomoto, selling mercury powder to be sold as the new drug for syphilis. Even the straight-laced de Zoet is not free from hypocrisy.

On this island of mores only a Machiavellian mother could be proud of, Jacob makes more enemies than friends. However, the young interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon and a midwife training in western medicine, Abigawa Orito, join the humanist hospital director Dr. Marinus to form Jacob’s core group of trusted associates. A burn on the left side of Abigawa’s beautiful face makes her less eligible for marriage as a daughter of the samurai class, but this blemish also has imparted her with the small freedom to pursue further study with Dr. Marinus. Despite this or because of it, Jacob falls for the clear-eyed Miss Abigawa and begins to sketch her in his journal.

Macroscopic views of nations at war, political power struggles, bureaucratic corruption, doomed romances, and sinister cult practices involving the harvesting of infants loom large while life moves on. A ewe bleats in the street. Insects flicker past in zig-zag patterns, caught only just, out of the corner of a character’s eye. A mutt raises its leg to relieve itself. A “snail on the pail flexes its stumpy horns; where ants carry patches of rhubarb leaf along the shaft of the hoe.” As Jacob regrets his verbal confession of love to Orito, one she reciprocates with silence, “[a] doe cries for her yearling, slaughtered for the lord of Satsuma.” Mitchell frequently slips in such small-scale details from life to offer a glittering counterpoint to the larger ongoing search for compromise between seemingly clashing languages and weltanschauungen among the characters.

In fact, well-woven plot and vivid literary acrobatics aside, the interactions between the few privileged Japanese and the Dutch on Dejima are what make the novel truly interesting. Without stripping his characters of their own individual humanity, Mitchell is able to negotiate absorbing dialogue and the exchange of new knowledge and ideas through a multitude of lenses shaped and shaded by national and local upbringing. While recognizing a character as a representative of his or her race or position in society, Mitchell gives precedent to each character’s personal experiences and interactions with other characters. In the end, it benefits his work, as very few characters in this particularly large cast come across as flat or static.

The plot of the novel sails smoothly, with the exception of a muddled passage detailing the events that surround the gout-inflicted Captain Penhaligon and his crew on the HMS Phoebus as they traverse the East China Sea with the goal of overtaking Dejima from the bankrupted Dutch East India Company. The travails of the English captain and the potency of sauerkraut as a cure for scurvy do not engage, boring despite Mitchell’s colorful language. All of this changes, however, with the arrival of the Phoebus at Nagasaki Harbor. The military resistance and all that it entails leads to some of the most graceful and redeeming (in terms of characters and plot) scenes in the novel. Scenes in which individual humanities and compassion trump national and even individual self interests.

Madcap, fantastic, and mythic at times, the labyrinthine plot twists work well for the most part. Mitchell’s deft literary embroidery enhances the development of his characters and their relationships with nuanced adroitness. A red thread leads, without fail, back to the motive or thought of a character, all with an ample use of dramatic irony that makes the actions in the novel tenable. Yes, Miss Abigawa is abducted by Lord Enomoto and shepherded away to an isolated nunnery high in the mountains. And yes this nunnery is rumored to “farm” deformed young women (many “rescued” from brothels) in unspeakable ways in order to procure a life-prolonging essence, but Lord Enomoto is just that kind of person. His obsession with immortality will come at any cost, and he has gained power by promising immortality to others. When Jacob stands with Dr. Marinus on the Dejima watchtower to face the oncoming barrage of cannons from the Phoebus and both men face death unflinchingly, the scene, instead of being overwrought, manages to be wholly believable.

In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, immortality begets death while mortality begets life. Lord Enomoto’s monastic order take women whose physical deformities have made them outcasts in society. The monks of the order not only “engift” (read:  impregnate) these women on a rotating basis, but they also take great pains to ensure that the women remain content with giving up their infants after birthing through repressive drugs and propaganda. Through well-crafted stories in the form of annual letters, the mothers are led to believe that their children have been adopted by loving families in the world below the mountain. In fact, the babies are harvested to procure an essence for immortality for the order’s monks and patrons. When the birthers are retired after 20 years of service and have the option of finally meeting their children, they are carried down the mountain after being drugged and are buried in a silent bamboo grove.

Mitchell has used horrific scenes of institutional deception, corruption, and exploitation in previous works while questioning the artificial nature of storytelling. Here we find the most salient parallel to Cloud Atlas in the fate of the clones from the chapter “An Orison of Sonmi-451.” The two clones work as waitresses at Papa Song’s fast food restaurant chain until collected years of service earn them retirement in a tropical locale. This promise turns out to be brightly-lit propaganda. In reality, all clones, regardless of how human they actually are, are chopped into spare parts and recycled like machines. The horror and dread inspired by institutions and the unease in a rhetoric or propaganda that may not have our best interests at heart is the teetering base upon which Mitchell bases his work. This sense of stomach-tightening distrust is made all too real in his swirling, heady, delirium-inducing prose.

Immortality in Mitchell’s most recent work—whether immortality gained through the imbibing of infant souls or by amassing wealth through corrupt but common business practices—requires the death of others and is often a death in itself. Lord Enomoto’s seeking of immortal life ultimately causes him to become an inhumane monster. In the end, it is only those who accept death willingly and face it with courage that are granted immortality; an immortality created through knowledge, peace, and good book-keeping. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the line between mortality and morality is blurred, but both make for good business.

Christine An ’11 is not a true believer, but is somebody’s best friend.