“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, is a romantic, intelligently historical novel that gets at the question of what gives things worth or value.
David Mitchell’s novel takes the reader to the Dutch East Indies port in Deijima, Japan. In a time when Japan’s international relations were closed, the Dutch occupy a special trade relationship, the only outsiders let into the county. Ship after ship arrives from the Europe nation, and the essential question early in the book is: What is copper worth?
Of course, we soon learn that the company has not been doing as well as it should, much of which is due to the mismanagement of materials by the Chief Daniel Snitker. These bad business methods are what bring our title character, Jacob de Zoet, to Dejiema. He works as a clerk—one that quickly rises in the ranks because of his skill with balancing and rectifying mismanaged books. Working with Vorstenbosch, the new chief, he is able to preserve and reorder the trade relationship in Japan.
At least for a time, that is. The whole of Deijima soon turns out to be a money pit. Even Vorstenbosch falls into corruption before all is said and done, and Jacob is left with new question: What is the price of honesty? For him, it is a lower post beneath rivals who accuse him of financial irresponsibility, and the lost opportunity to return home to his fiancé. Now Jacob, who has accumulated enemies because of his excessive ability to do the very job he was sent to do, is at the bottom of the ladder with all of those enemies looking down on him.
Of course, these first two questions of worth merely walk us to the steps of many other questions posed by the novel. Jacob must consider: What is the price of love, faithfulness, freedom?
And, most importantly to him and to his friend/interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, what is the price of Aibagawa Orito? Orito is a midwife who is allowed to study under a Dutch doctor until her father dies. Afterwards, she is sold to the shrine of a rich Lord Abbot named Enomoto—who has strange powers, appearing to be able to read minds as well as many other scary, invasive things. There, the “nuns” are used as vessels to bare children, impregnated by the men of the shrine. As Orito, Uzaemon, and Jacob all dig deeper into the “rules” and goings on of Enomoto’s shrine, its true activities appear even more sinister.
All three—Orito, Uzaemon, and Jacob—spend half of the novel seeking to free Orito, who does not want to be “engifted” with a child at the shrine. Each of them gives up much in the process, Uzaemon most of all. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s satisfying; at some point, the question becomes, “Is it worth the price?”—whether for Orito’s freedom or, for Enomoto, immortality.
Without ever being too ornate in its prose, this book has plenty of skill to catch you by surprise. It is so enrapturing and blindsiding that you will not realize that you’ve been hooked until you’re far into part two or three.
The book is straightforward in style, which is a departure from David Mitchell’s past work. Dave Eggers, writer of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” says that this book, for Mitchell, is “as if an acrobatic but show-offy performance artist, adept at mimicry, ventriloquism and cerebral literary gymnastics, had decided to do an old-fashioned play and, in the process, proved his chops as an actor.”
I can assure you that the moments and money spent on this book will be well worth the price.