This strikes me as one of those books that’s either very easy or very hard to describe, depending on how you go about summarizing the plot: set for the most part in 1799-1800 in Japan, this is three stories in one novel, none coming to a conventional conclusion in the mundane fictional sense. The bulk of the narrative takes place in Japan, on Deijima Island and environs, with an epilogue describing de Zoet’s return to Holland, marriage and eventual death there.
The first concerns the Dutch presence on Deijima Island in Nagasaki Harbor. For those not versed in Asian history, at that time, Japan was reluctant, to say the least, to allow either European or Christian presence in their country, and this toehold off the mainland was the closest the moribund Dutch East India Company could keep in their attempt to maintain trade with Japan. The Dutch protagonist1, Jacob de Zoet, has just arrived to go over his predecessor’s books expecting some sort of larceny. Mitchell leads into Part Two with de Zoet’s infatuation with an unusual woman, Orito Aibagawa: she is a skilled midwife who delivered the presumed stillborn child of the city magistrate, a student in the (then as now) otherwise all male medical seminars run by Dutch Dr. Marinus…and disfigured by a bad burn. Aibagawa is abducted and whisked away to a most peculiar religious house, in which ‘nuns’, most also disfigured on a par with Aibagawa, are kept as a stable of “brood mares” in order to provide babies as the crucial ingredient in a purported elixir of immortality for the monks. The women are told their children are adopted out to families who are unable to bear children; the monks write “letters from the children” over the years to reassure the women. The third part of The Thousand Autumns is a bit more straightforward: The English come to take over Deijima Island after the collapse of the Dutch East India company, but must fight their way in past the remnants of the company’s Dutch residents.
I suspect that this book would be more enjoyable for people familiar with Japanese history of the seventeenth and eighteenth history (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries wouldn’t hurt), specifically in regards the country’s relationships with China and the various European countries who wanted to trade (and then some) with Japan. I know a little bit, and was unfortunately often lost in regards what the various characters were there to do and what their intentions were. James Clavell’s Asia books aren’t quite enough to prepare readers for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; Mitchell doesn’t pamper anyone with background information. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it leaves the book a bit mystifying if the reader(s) don’t know that background. I can see why Mitchell won the Man Booker prize for this–it’s a far better book than many I’ve read for this blog–though I can understand that there are those who wouldn’t like this. It’s not terribly straightforward, it doesn’t provide a lot of background.
1as opposed to the English or Japanese protagonists