Poonam Srivastava reviews The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a mouthful of a novel title and a feast of a book. Go out and buy it, take it out of the library, borrow someone’s copy. Read this book about the Dutch East India Company in the harbor of Nagasaki and what that does to the Dutch and the mix of foreigners; and what that does to the Japanese. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by award winning writer David Mitchell, is in fact a novel about the beginnings of and the essence of multinational corporations and the unique twist they bring to the mix of foreigner meet native; occupy your own economy; and the good bad and beautiful and ugly guys that make this world we know go round. All the good guys and the bad guys are really just guys! Some of the guys are girls! They wield great power or suffer the great power of others but they want simple things: to be loved. Jacob de Zoet goes around the world for the possible hand of his beloved. Jacob is a forensic accountant clerk and the center of the novel. From his clear dreams and schemes at the beginning of the four hundred or so pages that begin in 1799 he goes all the way to the complex tapestry of a man with a son on foreign land in 1819 or so, to an ex Company man back home to his birth-land, a place whose residents will never share the deposits on his soul of another culture, or of the cruelties and heroism of persons in the play of forces set in motion by fools and kings but out of everyone’s control that was the Company. Jacob wants to be loved, as he would love his first born half-Japanese son, or before that the lovely midwife with the half burned face, or after that his much younger trophy bride.
To be loved or to be free: so many of the Dutch East India Company enjoy their status in Dejima and owe their presence there to the hunger and destitution that threw them into the wily will of ship owners and company execs back home. To be loved, to be free, or simply to follow the pursuits of intellect and heart: The Dr. Marinus and his sole female student Orito Abigawa are two such ones whose passion for the science of medicine and herbs take us to the state of medicine complete with bleedings but nuanced with western and eastern herbal knowledge. In Orito we see the state of woman in this man's world. We see her power too as she balances her own needs and desires with the demands of being a healer. As she grows from student, to captive nun/governess, to sought after expert we are privy to a friendship with a woman I would be proud to know.
Then too are those wonderfully nuanced characters that are fueled by the desire to exert the power of their will over others. Enter the most evil landowner despot I have had the pleasure to meet in real life or on the pages of a book: Mr. Enemoto. (Aptly named for me who hears enema in the name of this fecal beast!) In this character's introduction to the story and development we see the complexity of Evil. We see the rationalizations, hear the soft spoken sword of his voice, smell his blood thirst. We shiver at his incredible abuse of religion and his uncanny wizard-esque slight of hand to the other powerful Japanese and to those that live under his power.
The story is fast paced as Mitchell is equally gifted at plot. He turns and twists the tensions in this epic tale with such alacrity that the reader hardly notices as hundreds of pages of print are absorbed. His descriptions of place and the details of time, historic and simply seasonal and temporal, make this book super visual. Before ending this 5 stars out of 5 stars review I must mention his sublime dialogues that give such complex characters individual voice. One cannot imagine Orito Abigawa speaking in another way to Dr. Marinus or Jacob and vise versa.
Do yourself a favor and read this book written by twice nominated for the Mann Booker Prize author David Mitchell. You will travel through time and surf the elements that make the human condition timeless. You will also garner a good solid understanding of what multinational corporatism is essentially from the foundations. Occupy your knowledge base in a most enjoyable way: which is the purvey of story: n’est-ce pas?