The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet--David Mitchell

Up until now I have not read any David Mitchell.  From other reviews I have read, I started with one that is not "typical" Mitchell, although, from what I've seen of his books through reviews, I rather doubt that there is a "typical" Mitchell--which is a good thing.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an odd book that resists categorization.  The plot swings from the mundane historical into the hysterical (not in the amusing sense) by strange and vast turns.  As with Beatrice and Virgil, I think what we have in this book is an interesting, but largely failed literary experiment.  The writing is alternatively fluid and terse--some sections are like settings of linked verse, very haiku and tanka-like.  Other pieces more closely resemble normal narrative, but there is a tendency to extremely short paragraphs--a kind of stylization of the prose.

In fact, thinking hard about the book overall, I wondered whether Mitchell had planned this kind of deliberate, Japanese delivery.  Reading the interviews, there is no sense of that from him; however, I couldn't help but think of the whole book as something of a mugen noh cycle featuring at a minimum three of the traditional five categories.  And I suppose that an argument could be made for all five.

There is certainly category two--Man, in which a tormented man, often a soldier--but not in this case--seeks redemption and forgiveness.  The torment, in this case, is fidelity to the memory of one left behind in the face of temptation present right now.

The third category--Woman--is also featured.  Again, the elements are not exact, because the plays often feature the ghost of a woman wandering the world, trapped by the love she feels.

The fourth category--crazed--is less evident, but perhaps there are plot elements surrounding Aibagawa which could be seen as featuring a woman alienated from her society.  In this case the alienation is both chosen (attempting to be a person of learning and skill in a society that does not value women for those attributes) and unchosen--the disfigurement from which she suffers.

And as to the fifth category--demon, there can be no doubt at all because a goodly portion of the book suddenly plunges into an elaborate exposition of this category.  Characterized by intense dance, drumming, and music, this category of Noh features ghosts, demons, and other supernatural element that propel events along to their conclusion.

The only category I'm completely uncertain about is God.  The God play often features Gods as promises of peace, joy, prosperity, and hope.

Of course, if Mitchell were completely ignorant of the conventions of Noh theatre, all of this is bootless speculation and a construction I have forced upon an otherwise unexceptional work.  I cannot say, not knowing the man, and not aware of any indications he may have given of this kind of elaborate working of traditional Japanese theatre and themes into the work.

What I can say is that I came away from the book impressed by what I took to be an interesting and elaborate experiment, but not impressed by story, plot, characters, or even by descriptions of a very interesting place in a most interesting time in Japanese history.  Dejima  possibly one of the first of the Dubai-like artificial islands, built as a residence to keep the European contamination away from the purity of the Japanese mainland is a place worth coming to know--and if this book is your only experience with it, you could do worse.

Interesting, with some worthwhile parts and pieces, but ultimately not as fulfilling as I had hoped.


For more on Noh, check out this site.


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