The Sounds and the Smells of Forbidden Japan

from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

Through the palanquin's grille, he smells steamed rice, sewage, incense, lemons, sawdust, yeast, and rotting seaweed. He glimpses gnarled old women, pocked monks, unmarried girls with blackened teeth. Would that I had a sketchbook, the foreigner things, and three days ashore to fill it. Children on a mud wall make owl-eyes with their forefingers and thumbs, chanting 'Oranda-me, Oranda-me, Oranda-me': Jacob realizes they are impersonating 'round' European eyes and remembers a string of urchins following a Chinaman in London: the urchins pulled their eyes into narrow slants and sang 'Chinese, Siamese, if you please, Japanese.'
 Just a couple of comments that are going to sound more negative than intended.  As I read the first sentence I wondered, did he smell these smells sequentially in his progress from dockside to his final destination?  Or, did he smell them all at once and separate these into component smells?  Also, what quantities of rice must have been cooking to be in the open air and smell steamed rice--a subtle scent in a confined space like a kitchen--especially when in juxtapostion against sewage, incense, and the rough iodiny smell of rotting seaweed. 

The second comment centers around anachronism.  Does it make sense that children in 18th century England would know enough about China, Siam, and Japan to have a rhyme regarding them?  It certainly is possible--I suppose, but it is one of those things that make me itch to find some confirmation, so historical source that records such a verse.

As said before, these sound negative.  But they aren't really.  The world is sufficiently rich and fascinating to encourage the reader to pause, savor, and ask these questions.  And ultimately they may weave together into a work that is both fascinating and reflective. As I continue, I'll keep you posted. Perhaps, as you may have discovered ad nauseam.

Comments

  1. "As I read the first sentence I wondered, did he smell these smells sequentially in his progress from dockside to his final destination? Or, did he smell them all at once and separate these into component smells?"

    Hi Steven, this question of yours is something that would occur to me, too.

    You know, there's a third possibility, that the character smelled seaweed first and steamed rice last, or some other combination of odors, only to have the narrator organize them in this particular order because they "sound" better or "feel" right.

    I'm often amazed at how much fictionalizing I do, for instance, in relating to my wife trivial details of my day.

    Anyhow, on your view, is there something important at stake depending on how the question is answered?

    Best,
    Kevin

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  2. Dear Kevin,

    You ask a difficult question there at the last. "Is there something important at stake depending on how the question is answered?" It would seem of relatively little importance until it is clear how it fits into the consciousness of the person experiencing it and into the narrative as a whole. As I continued on, I found myself tempted to put the book aside because of other instances of a similar kind which seemed to intrude on the consciousness with an outside organizing voice. And yet, perhaps, this is part of the overall purpose--perhaps we are to have this consciousness along with a consciousness that it is all filtered and organized.

    I suppose I'll have to see where it goes from there.

    The singular incident is probably inconsequential, but is it an instance of purpose or loss of control? Some of my reading, as perhaps I'll try to share today, suggest either interpretation.

    I often find myself struggling with a work--resisting liking it for reasons that may not be entirely clear to me.

    Thanks for the note.

    shalom,

    Steven

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