Dutch courage

David Mitchell's Jacob de Zoet revises historical fiction
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 22, 2010

USEFUL FICTION: As one of Mitchell’s characters says, it’s stories that make life tolerable.

When you've already written a novel like Cloud Atlas, which travels from 1850 to the apocalyptic future and back again, writing a historical novel might be redundant. Moreover, with his motif of reprising characters and events from book to book, David Mitchell has been spinning his own history of the world — one that's based only tangentially on everyone else's.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet | Written by David Mitchell | 470 Pages | Random House | $25
Not many of those connections to previous work occur in his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Or at least, few that I could find. Here's one: the name Kobayashi appears in both Mitchell's first book, Ghostwritten, as the alias used by a terrorist, and in this one, as the name of a Japanese translator. Not much there to pin a PhD thesis on.

Neither does this new effort bear a strong stylistic or formal resemblance to his others. It strays little from the confines of the historical-fiction genre. But beneath those conventions, Mitchell's past themes persist. In particular, his insight into how certain fictions are necessary to make experience coherent and bearable — artifices like language, science, religion, and history itself. To paraphrase one of the book's characters: it's stories that make life tolerable. The human mind is "a loom that weaves disparate threads of belief, memory, and narrative into an entity whose common name is Self, and which sometimes calls itself Perception."

Illusory or not, the historical setting of Jacob de Zoet is Dejima, a Dutch East Indies outpost in isolationist Japan at the turn of the 19th century. The young clerk of the title has just arrived, hoping to make his fortune so he can return to the Netherlands wealthy enough to marry his fiancée. Instead, he finds himself on the threshold of a tantalizing new world. Dejima is more an abstraction than an island, a manmade outcropping in Nagasaki Harbor constructed by the Japanese, who fear the influence of European culture but covet its riches. A single gated bridge connects the island to the mainland, and only a chosen few, from either side, are permitted to cross.

One of those is the Japanese midwife Orito, a beautiful woman whose medical skills have won her the right to study Dutch medicine under Dejima's cranky Dr. Marinus. One look at Orito and De Zoet is in love, his planned life back home forgotten. However, politics and tradition separate them, and things don't get any easier when outside forces from Napoleonic Europe and shogunate Japan reduce both to desperate straits. Orito's situation is particularly dire: she is incarcerated in a convent with practices creepily similar to those found in one of the more dystopic chapters of Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell relates this somewhat bodice-ripping plot in a style that ranges from purple to profound. He doesn't shy from breathless, italicized, single-sentence paragraphs to reveal a character's innermost thoughts, or portentous appearances of cats, moths, and cockroaches, or the crude realism of a belch, fart, or blob of phlegm. On the other hand, he has scenes like the one in which a Japanese doctor describes how he and his colleagues compared a dissected cadaver with a Dutch anatomy text and, recognizing the book's accuracy, vowed to translate it into Japanese. The flesh, in short, is made word, and then reworded into another language.

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