A few years ago, in Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell produced a startling and often beautiful meditation on human predation. Now, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he has produced what might be considered a companion volume to that earlier novel: a startling and at times beautiful meditation on ownership and being owned.
Of course there is a great deal of overlap between people being predated and people being owned, the political thinking behind the two novels is clearly the same. But there is an immense difference in the presentation of that thinking. Where Cloud Atlas crossed the world, extended over centuries and was told through a postmodern device of nested and unnested narratives, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is tightly and precisely focused upon one time and place, and is told through the overtly conventional device of a straightforward historical novel.
The 18th century is turning into the 19th, a turning point in more ways than one. The Dutch East India Company is stuttering towards bankruptcy; Britain, still smarting from the loss of the American colonies, is beginning to expand into the vacuum left by the Dutch in the Far East; and in Japan the Tokugawa Shogunate is growing old while some few scholars and leaders are beginning to recognize that its distancing attitude towards all foreign contact is placing the country at a disadvantage. The place is equally specific: Dejima, the small artificial island just off Nagasaki (the original title for the novel was Nagasaki) where Dutch traders are confined.
Within this tiny arena, Mitchell manages to squeeze an awful lot of variations on the theme of people imprisoned, held against their will, but such imprisonment is consistently shown as being economically based. Every character in this novel is engaged in trade in one way or another, but they are also being traded themselves. The Dutch own slaves, one of whom is badly beaten when his long-promised freedom is again denied. But the Dutch themselves are equally unfree, trapped on a small island and dependent upon the annual visit of a trading ship that may or may not arrive. One of the traders, we discover, is an Irish convict who escaped from Botany Bay where he had been transported for stealing to live, convicted on the testimony of the very man who encouraged his thefts. Meanwhile, the Japanese are just as much prisoners of the elaborate rules that govern their society, rules that govern what they can say and how they say it, what they can do and how much they can earn. And within these elaborate restrictions there are the women held and abused within the House of Sisters, whose captivity, we learn, has been bought. And there are countless other variations on this, big and small, that run throughout the novel: everyone either owns or attempts to own everyone else.
In Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, Mitchell proved himself as much a master of patterns as he is of story, and that is again the case here. We keep seeing the same shapes recur, often so subtly that you don’t at first notice how much one situation echoes another. The novel opens, for instance, aboard a Dutch merchantman where the former chief of Dejima is undergoing a kangaroo court for defrauding the company. The charges against him can be read as a contents list for things that will recur throughout the novel, and the chief himself will eventually reappear as a bringer of doom to the colony.
Acting as Recording Angel at the trial, a role he will maintain throughout the book, is Jacob de Zoet, our moral focus. There are three hero-figures in the novel who act according to moral rather than economic imperatives, inevitably this means that none of them will attain what they truly desire. Jacob is here for economic reasons, of course: his prospective father in law has sent him to earn his fortune in the Indies before he can marry, and throughout the novel he will find himself falling short of his own moral standards, but at least he has those standards. He is here to root out fraud on behalf of the new chief of Dejima, not realizing that the new chief is using this as a cover for his own frauds. This, inevitably, isolates him from the other Dutch traders, and drives him increasingly into the company of the grouchy doctor who is teaching European science to a handful of Japanese students. And in particular he meets one of those students, Aibagawa Orito, a woman disfigured by a burn mark on the side of her face who has earned the extraordinarily rare opportunity to be a medical student because she is a skilled midwife. The slow, tentative relationship that grows between them is handled with great delicacy, especially as we know as well as they do that no genuine relationship is possible.
Then the action lurches into a different gear. The new chief perpetrates his own fraud and sails away, abandoning Jacob. At the same time, Orito’s father dies and she is sold into the nunnery at Mount Shiranui (a transaction we later learn has been manipulated by Abbot Enomoto) and Jacob is not quick enough to rescue her. But the House of Sisters on Mount Shiranui is no ordinary religious sanctuary; the women held there are used to breed babies that are then taken away and secretly killed so that Abbot E and his cronies can feed on the blood, a diet he claims has already kept him alive for several hundred years. This middle section of the novel is melodramatic (it includes a tense escape attempt by Orito, and a doomed rescue attempt by the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon), and with the hint of the fantastic in the character of Abbot Enomoto, it is a reminder that we should never read Mitchell’s work as straightforwardly realistic. (Remember, one of the characters from Ghostwritten recurs in Cloud Atlas, and another from Cloud Atlas recurs in Black Swan Green, and Mitchell has already talked about one of the characters from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet reappearing in his next modern-day novel – his books are a web of fantastic interconnections.)
The final third returns us to Dejima, when a run-down British man o’ war attempts to take over the colony (there is a specific nod of the head to William Golding in these scenes), and Jacob learns the fate of Orito. Again we see every characters the prisoner of their own economic necessity, we see ownership and being owned as the guiding factors in human interaction.
And there is a lot more I’m not going to talk about, other than to remark on how satisfying this story is. As a caveat, I should add that I knew David Mitchell before he first went to Japan and became a writer; I don’t think that acquaintance clouds my judgement when I say he remains one of the most interesting and essential novelists writing today.