It took me a few days to get over the feeling left by David Mitchell‘s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Usually, after finishing a book, I’d jump right in to the next one, but I couldn’t quite shake off Jacob de Zoet. Even now, when I think back on it, I get a strange feeling of sadness.
After I bought this book, it sat on my shelf, unread, for almost a year. I tried (and failed) to read it a couple of times, but I couldn’t really get into the story. I decided to try again mid May, when I was sort of in a slump and couldn’t think of anything else to read.
I didn’t really know what to expect from Jacob de Zoet, and the information on the blurb at the back of the book didn’t say much. Diving into the book, head first, without a clue, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The Thousand Aumunts of Jacob de Zoet, is an historic fiction about the trade relationships between Nagasaki, Japan, and the Dutch East Indies Company. The events of the novel take place around the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s.
The novel starts out slow, just after the young Dutch clerk, and protagonist, Jacob de Zoet, joins the Dutch East Indies Company to find his fortune – to be able to marry a girl he left behind in Amsterdam.
The novel is divided into 5 parts and takes several unexpected turns along the way. The first part of the book, told mainly from the point of view of Jacob de Zoet, is about the Dutch occupied island of Dejima and the life of the clerks, officers, and Dutch crew.
By the end of the first half, the tale turns into a shy and awkward love story.
The second half of the book is told mainly from the points of view of different Japanese characters – the love story introduced in the first half turns into a horrific tale of bizarre cult beliefs and practices, then eventually into a Samurai’s quest for vengeance and redemption.
The third part of the novel takes us back to Dejima, to a wiser, and more cautious Jacob de Zoet. Here, the novel takes another unexpected turn, and aside from the Japanese and Dutch points of view, the Dutch slaves become part of the narration, as well as a new character.
The final parts of the novel is devoted to Jacob de Zoet.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a complicated, unexpected, beautiful, book about duty and sacrifice, cause and effect.
It describes the world of Dutch sailors living, almost like prisoners, in Dejima, the man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki used as a trading post by the Dutch East Indies Company, under the watchful eyes of their Japanese hosts; it portrays the proud and nationalistic Japanese Samurai culture under the rule of a Shogun, and their disdain for foreigners; it also tackles the trials of non-Japanese Asians who are enslaved and looked down upon both by the Dutch and the Japanese.
While living in Dejima, Jacob de Zoet learns about loyalty, corruption, betrayal, friendship, perseverance, humility, pride, morality, integrity, courage, guilt, shame, and love, the hard way – by experiencing each one, sometimes painfully, and with varying consequences.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a book of great depth and range; and though powerful, it is also very subtle, and underneath the tale of courage, and honor, it is, essentially a love story; a love story doomed from the start, but does not stop Jacob de Zoet, and the readers from longing, wishing, hoping…
Despite the feeling of emptiness and melancholy evoked by Jacob de Zoet, or maybe because of it, I found this novel very engaging, and quite excellent. And though the emotions felt throughout were barely noticeable, I was drained and exhausted by the time I reached the end.
The paperback edition 510 pages long, so I will count it as the 5th book in my Chunkster Reading Challenge, 2012.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – David Mitchell
Random House; 510 pages
Personal rating: 4.5/5