With a title like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, you have to wonder what the book’s about. As it turns out, the real question is: What isn’t it about? Author David Mitchell’s work features a love triangle, a naval battle, a strange and sinister cult, East-meets-West culture shocks, institutional corruption, prostitution, mercantilism, and the martial arts.
The story is too complex to sum up satisfactorily in just a few hundred words. Suffice to say, the plot, which is ambitiously epic, revolves around Jacob de Zoet (pronounced “day zoot”) and Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife he meets (and is captivated by) after he travels from his native Holland to Dejima — a Dutch trade outpost in Nagasaki — in search of wealth and status.
What makes Dejima unique is that it’s the only Western presence in the Japanese empire during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Because of the extremely xenophobic outlook of Japan prior to the arrival in 1854 of American Commodore Matthew Perry (not to be confused with this guy), the country’s leaders limited its single Western trading partner to one settlement — a small, artificial island in Nagasaki Bay. (It was artificial because the Japanese didn’t want the gaijin setting foot on their soil.)
Obviously, a romance between Jacob and Orito is going to be difficult in that environment. And in fact, the two are unable to interact with each other throughout most of the story. But he remains obsessed with her, and makes the most of his extremely limited power to help her from his (figuratively and literally) isolated position.
One interesting thing about this book is that minor characters often provide the most thought-provoking, profound commentary. For instance, there’s this passage in which a Japanese scholar tells students at a Nagasaki academy how conviction stirs action:
“The present is a battleground … where rival what-ifs compete to become the future ‘what is.’ How does one what-if prevail over its adversaries? … The answer is ‘belief.’ Beliefs that are ignoble or idealistic; democratic or Confucian; Occidental or Oriental; timid or bold; clear-sighted or delusional. Power is informed by belief that this path, and not another, must be followed.”
Another example comes from a slave who is known to the Dutch of Dejima as “Weh,” named for his island of origin. The short chapter featuring this ancillary character is a kind of mid-book interlude. He isn’t actually speaking out loud, but rather runs an internal dialogue in which he considers which parts of himself he actually “owns.” He more or less concludes that he’s sovereign in his own mind, but that’s cold comfort given the brutal physical reality he has to deal with most of the time.
So with the novel’s assortment of philosophical jags and subplots, is there an overall point to be taken from it? I believe it’s in there, but readers won’t find it until they get to the last couple of pages. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Jacob eventually goes back in Holland, where he lives out the rest of his life. As he reflects on it all at the end, it seems his final, unremarkable years have slipped away like water through his fingers, and that they pale in comparison to that time when the world offered new discoveries and challenges, and he was trying to follow his heart.