The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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 Japanese, I read,’ says Talbot, ‘give florid names to their kingdom . . .“The Land of a Thousand Autumns” or “The Root of the Sun”.’

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

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12 thoughts on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  1. Yay! I feel that I’m going to love this (regardless of my fanaticism) because of “[…] the feeling of emptiness and melancholy evoked […]” Are you now a Mitchell fan?

    • If you’re a sucker for depressing books, this might just work for you…

      I don’t know if I’m officially a “fan” but I was curious enough to buy “Black Swan Green,” which I am currently reading. It’s ok so far….

      I think Number9dream sounds interesting. I might read it soon, depending on how Black Swan Green goes 🙂

      • I think Black Swan Green is his worst work (from an objective point of view). It’s a departure from the bold structure of his other novels. Number9Dream is fun!

      • I haven’t read his other books but Jacob de Zoet is just straightforward, narration, in the classic style (with a little bit of 1st person thoughts interjected between 3rd person narration). So it might be different from his usual writing style…?

  2. This has been sitting on my shelf for awhile too; it’s nice when a shelfsitter turns out to be so memorable. I’ve heard a couple of interviews with the author and they just made me want to read everything that he’s written, so I’ve been collecting his works steadily and just need to choose, now, where to begin.

    • I know, and to think I almost passed up reading it again. It’s the first book I read by Mitchell, but from what I’ve heard, I think the writing style is a bit different from what he’s known for. I think he is known for his style in his first 3 books: Ghostwritten, Number9dream and Cloud Atlas.

      So, if you like “postmodern-ish” / non-linear type of storytelling, maybe you should start with his first three novels.

      If you like traditional, linear, narratives, start with Jacob de Zoet or Black Swan Green.

      I think I will also try and read all his novels.

  3. Mitchell is one of those authors that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet but where I have high hopes that I will just love his work. I have Ghostwritten sitting on my shelf, just waiting for me. When Jacob de Zoet came out, I thought it sounded very different from the impression I had of Mitchell’s writing and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read it. However, I’ve read several reviews, definitely including this one, that has made me rethink this – so one more Mitchell to read 🙂

    • Yes, I think this might be different from Mitchell’s other books in that it was it was pretty straightforward. It also took me forever to read Mitchell, but I’m glad I finally got around to it. I was a bit disappointed with Black Swan Green though, but it wasn’t bad. Cloud Atlas is next on my list….

      • I remember that back when I bought Ghostwritten, I was torn between Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten – I remember thinking they both sounded very good but something in Ghostwritten made me choose that one, even though I think Cloud Atlas is the one which has had the best reception.

      • He’s definitely an author that I have high hopes for. I think he could be someone where I would love to read all his books – even though it is a bit premature to say since I haven’t yet a single book … but sometimes, you just have a feeling about an author, you know?

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