The year is , the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the high walled, fan shaped artificial island that is the Japanese Empire s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay the farthest outpost of the war ravaged Dutch East Indies Company and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fianc e back in HollandBut Jacob s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city s powerful magistrate The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken The consequences will extend beyond Jacob s worst imaginings As one cynical colleague asks, Who ain t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author David Mitchell and I had not been introduced before I knew he had written something about clouds and dreams and this looked pretty so I took it home with me.It is a book about Jacob de Zoet, who in 1799 arrives as a clerk on Dejima, an artificial island near Nagasaki and the only point of contact between Japan and the outside world It is also a book about an English ship and a mountain shrine and secret religious cult It is a book about Orito, Japanese midwife whose face is half burnt but the David Mitchell and I had not been introduced before I knew he had written something about clouds and dreams and this looked pretty so I took it home with me.It is a book about Jacob de Zoet, who in 1799 arrives as a clerk on Dejima, an artificial island near Nagasaki and the only point of contact between Japan and the outside world It is also a book about an English ship and a mountain shrine and secret religious cult It is a book about Orito, Japanese midwife whose face is half burnt but the book s most noble characters seem to fall in love with despite that This book is about so many things in so many different ways that it is rather hard to write anything coherent about the plot Mitchell has one hell of imagination and patience for research and I was left in awe The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is tour de force, and unlike the blurb writers, I don t use this term lightly Writing this novel must ve been a massive undertaking but I am not sure regular human beings like you and me can keep up with Mitchell as he jumps around like a flea The opening chapter blew me away and the first part of the book promised a solid historical novel Then everything was turned around and we found ourselves in a Japanese shrine taken out straight from an airport bookshop bestseller It was mysterious and romantic and a little bit silly I thought David, really I know that authors think they can get away with just about anything in the middle of the book but don t you think you are pushing your luck a little bit here David took my advice and abandoned the shrine plotline halfway through and took us back to Jacob de Zoet just when we forgot he was supposed to be the main character and stopped caring about him altogether After an episode on an English ship starring a captain suffering from gout we get to the epilogue with Jacob de Zoet, as though Mitchell was convinced we needed a closure As far as epilogues go this one was as unnecessary as the epilogue in the last Harry Potter book I really don t know what to make out of this book It read easily even if Mitchell has the most bizarre writing style ever Oh boy, does he love his suspension points They are everywhere Sometimes to say that many things happen at once she looked outside the window As if we didn t know that many things can happen at once the washing machine started the spinning cycle And on page 383 Mitchell uses suspension points 21 times My flatmate s alarm went off but he is still sleepingThere was just too much of everything in this book and in the end it seems that all these things have cancelled each other out Just what was I supposed to get out of this novel What point if any was it trying to make Don t get me wrong I did enjoy it, at times I enjoyed it a lot, even the airport paperback bits, but I think Mitchell s imagination can be put to a much better use Someone flushed the toilet In this historical novel, an unassuming Dutch bookkeeper named Jacob de Zoet falls in love with a beautiful midwife in 18th century Japan When Miss Aiba gawa is spirited away to a mountain monastery, Jacob finds the heroism in his soul Here is a bygone secret world full of charm and horror Mitchell is best known for Cloud Atlas, which was a literary stunt in this correspondent s opinion The Thousand Autumns is far better. Remember Dr Seuss s words, children Oh, the Places You ll Go In the case of wunderkind writer David Mitchell s THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, you ll set your time machine dial for 1799 and a makeshift Dutch port called Dejima on the shores of Nagasaki, Japan But let s take it down another level You ll start at the port and live with old salts that ll make the Pirates of the Caribbean look like so many Lord Fauntleroys You ll visit the homes of the secretive Japanese magistrates Remember Dr Seuss s words, children Oh, the Places You ll Go In the case of wunderkind writer David Mitchell s THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, you ll set your time machine dial for 1799 and a makeshift Dutch port called Dejima on the shores of Nagasaki, Japan But let s take it down another level You ll start at the port and live with old salts that ll make the Pirates of the Caribbean look like so many Lord Fauntleroys You ll visit the homes of the secretive Japanese magistrates You ll do some time in Dr Marinus s academy, witnessing some bone chilling turn of THAT century operations removal of a kidney stone, for instance, in full metal graphics You ll go up into the mountains past Nagasaki, up to a castle where Japanese women are held in captivity but told they are nuns worshiping an obscure goddess Over the river and through the woods you ll go in an exciting mission with samurais bent on rescuing one very special captive in this castle And you ll even hit the low seas off Dejima and join British Captain Penhaligon as he wrestles with his conscience and his wits, trying to decide whether to attack the Dutch and Japanese or negotiate with them Nautical chess games, anyone David Mitchell can flat out write Among contemporary writers, he reigns supreme I would say in my book, but in HIS books, actually for his ability to turn poetry into words and to make images dance in startling ways This is a writer s writer with imagination and skill And what s best is how he s constantly challenging himself as well Here we have historical fiction in one of the most unusual of settings, yet you ll feel you re there and that you actually have an understanding of the mysterious land of the shoguns as well as the nefarious intrigues of the European traders As you d expect from Mitchell, the allusions are rich and varied, too Through characters such as Dr Marinus, the surgeon musician man of science as well as the arts with the Dutch, you ll hear references to the Greeks, the Romans, the ancient Arabs, the Bible, mythology, philosophers, scientists, and whatnot An irascible and complex man, Marinus was one of my favorites, though his role was rather minor.Bigger roles go, of course, to Jacob and the disfigured Japanese midwife he falls in love with, Orito Aibagawa Jacob De Zoet, a practical and religious man, is honest to a fault Among the Dutch lowlifes, he is both gasoline and match, in other words, and his zealous opposition to embezzling and skimming profits and black marketing make him many enemies Orito has her own problems A student of Dr Marinus s, she attracts unwanted attention from the Japanese nobles some noble and others vicious when she dallies with the pale skinned, auburn haired Jacob When she disappears, the novel takes off to some of theexotic locales mentioned early in this review.Some readers may struggle with the number of Japanese names and characters, especially at the nunnery, but Mitchell at least is studious in his characterization and the special quirks he bestows to his creations At times Mitchell can overwrite, too, when he should move on, but those instances are neither frequent nor extended The book s best scenes come at the end when the added dimension of a British frigate is provided The match of wits between Capt Penhaligon and De Zoet when Dejima is bottled up by the man of war is a joy to read Mitchell is at his best when dealing with the psychological and the power of decisions made in moments of crisis to alter history.If you ve had your fill of beach reads this summer, THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET is your antidote It s serious contemporary literature by one of ourgifted scribes It s a grown up s book that contains not only incredible description but a sound plot And no, it won t baby you with constant, hold on to your seat action, but you can handle that and you can appreciate a novel for its construction and its grander designs as well, right So why not give it a places you ll go This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers To view it, click here I ve spent a week reading this very fine novel and a weekend attempting to unpack it, and I have little doubt I ll spend a good few years thinking about it from time to time If one measure of a novel is its ability to simultaneously inspire and confound engagement, then Mitchell has once again turned it up to 11.Most of the reviews I ve been reading have remarked that this is Mitchell s most formally conventional novel linear, third person narrative , and that his often scintillating prose has I ve spent a week reading this very fine novel and a weekend attempting to unpack it, and I have little doubt I ll spend a good few years thinking about it from time to time If one measure of a novel is its ability to simultaneously inspire and confound engagement, then Mitchell has once again turned it up to 11.Most of the reviews I ve been reading have remarked that this is Mitchell s most formally conventional novel linear, third person narrative , and that his often scintillating prose has been burnished to amuted lustre, and for the most part these are accurate There s less showmanship here, without any reduction in finesse But in all Mitchell s novels, messages hide within the virtuosity, and this book s lack of embellishment brings them a little closer to the surface We are tantalized with recurrent themes, unexplained symbols, ties between distant story lines indeed, between entire novels , and I ve been having a hell of a time trying to reconstruct it all into some kind of meaning.The reviews that have helped bring some coherence to my thoughts, though, are those by the Irish Times and the Times of London, both of which point out the importance of bridging divides between people, cultures, worlds Dejima is a bridge between Europe and Japan Its denizens are interpreters, tradesmen, and scientists, all disciplines that form bridges between people language, goods, knowledge Characters constantly bridge the gap between each other and between them and the reader by recounting their backstories in Scooby Doo esque wavy screened flashbacks Jacob and Uzaemon are united by books, and later by Orito Jacob and Orito by love, letters, and language Marinus and his Japanese colleagues by medicine and botany.Dejima, like other frontiers, is also a crucible for morality, and we are constantly reminded of what can befall those who fail to bridge divides and continue to see other people and cultures as entirely alien Corruption is rampant, as well as infidelity The Dutch and the Japanese habitually try to cheat each other, just as they play and betray their own countrymen Slavery and subjugation are implicitly and explicitly addressed again and again like in Cloud Atlas.It was interesting to me that there were very clear cut Good Guys and Bad Guys The Good Guys de Zoet, Orito, Marinus, Uzaemon are all truth seekers of sorts Jacob crunches numbers and uncovers corruption Orito and Marinus are scientists Uzaemon studies the true meaning of words They all also have internal, non relativistic moral codes that burn just as brightly on foreign soil as at home, and allow them to recognize kindred fires abroad Jacob standing on the watch tower, or Marinus decrying the beating of a slave Orito choosing to save others despite her imprisonment, and Uzaemon abandoning his steady, obedient life to destroy the temple.The Bad Guys Enomoto, Vorstenbosch, Capt Lacy, Fischer are universally self interested, and view others as stepping stones, chattel, or even food Enomoto is a bit of a mystery to me, though He s a mustache twirling, finger tenting immortal super villain who has magic powers and eats babies In a thoroughly researched, realistic historical novel, he kind of stands out I suspect that aside from entertainment, his presence and exit are actually meant to demonstrate what evil is not He s the only bad guy who gets his comeuppance, as if the only evils that can be truly vanquished are the imaginary ones As Grote says, Tain t good intentions what paves the road to hell it s self justifyin s p 104 , and as Enomoto himself says, Evil, evil evil You always wield that word as if it were a sword and not a vapid conceit p 309 Evil is not discrete or separate, nor can it be nicely excised All thehuman transgressors survive, even prosper.Anyway, those are the things that seem to make sense to me about this novel.Here are a few things that don t What the hell was up with the constant interruption of quotes For example Chief van Cleef, Fischer calls after him, and I shall discuss your insolence It s a long way, Ivo Oost smokes in a doorway, down to the bottom It is my signature, Fischer shouts after him, that authorizes your wages p 166 The majority of quotes are written this way In an unknown author, I might attribute this to a weird lexical tick, but Mitchell is a careful, meticulous writer capable of adopting many different voices and styles, so I think this has to be intentional But what does it mean I m guessing the form has some relation to Japanese literature or poetry, but I don t know enough to make a connection.Mitchell also repeatedly employs this weird interleaving of interior and exterior monologue An example from the Phoebus, as Cpt Penhaligon listens to a sermon And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared The common run of chaplains is either too meek for so unruly a flock and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved or else, so zealous that the sailors ignore, scorn or vilify them was then taken away But after long abstinence Paul stood forth Chaplain Wily, an oysterman s son from Whistable, is a welcome exception p 328 These passages are almost unreadable Perhaps they are there both to contrast truth as thought and truth as communicated the bridge , and to demonstrate how utterly discordant the two can be.Animals a moth witnesses birth at the start, and a butterfly witnesses death at the finish Orito speaks to cats and rats in moments of drug induced madness, and William Pitt the monkey bears witness to the tribulations on Dejima Nature does not play an overt role in this book or in any Mitchell novel , but natural elements seem be deliberately included Simply mneomnic rigging, or is thereexplicit allegory at play And finally, my notes.puerperal adj adj form of puerpera, a woman who has just given birth p 8 yakumoso n a bit of searching of suggests this is some member of the genus Leonurus, maybe Leonurus japonicus Apparently it s commonly used in Asian folk medicine, just as the related motherwort is used in European folk medicine As with so many folk remedies, it seems to treat just about everything, though there apparently are some papers about antimicrobial properties.farrago n hodgepodge, mixture p 11 carrack n a kind of merchant ship p 15 The pain is prismatic p 45 I kind of hate it when authors employ literally floral language when describing pain delicate pain, pain blossoming, etc I like prismatic provedore n a purveyor or provider How do they relate to stevedores Prove gives the hard tack to Steve and Steve loads it onto the boat Why isn t anyone named Prove Why p 56 Deflate your testicles comme la mode via the village pimp or Sin of Onan p 58 Sadly, it doesn t take much to make me laugh As usual, though, the Bible is funnier And the thing which he did displeased the LORD wherefore he slew him also Genesis 38 10 Old Testament God held no truck with half assed punishment like mere blindness glister n alternate spelling of clyster, which is an archaic term for an enema had to rely on Wikipedia for the alternate orthography, but clyster is in my abbreviated OED This scene is both horrid and hilarious I love Dr Marinus p 66 dithyrambic adj a dithyramb was a form a Greek song and dance involving a large group of men and boys dancing in a circle Apparently it had a unique meter, but not sure what it was p 69 chandler n candle maker p 100 splenetic adj pertaining to the spleen, irritable p 109 langer n apparently an all purpose disparagement in County Cork, Ireland Wikipedia and this page have interesting perspectives on the history of the word as does this performance of The Langer Song If the east Indian simian etymology is correct, though, Con Twomey would have been a bit ahead of his time in speaking it, despite being a Corkman p 111 bourse n an exchange or market p 114 monorchid n a man with only one testicle Let me take a moment to assure you that that the somewhat juvenile selection of words here reflects the rather puerile condition of my own predilections and not the overall tenor of the novel The word orchid apparently derives from the Greek wordrkhis, meaning testicle I always chuckled when I read about the scrotum like flowers of the Pink lady s slipper Cypripedium acaule Now I realize I should have been chuckling a lotp 118 Act, implores the Ghost of Future Regret I shan t give you another chance p 123 manumission n manumit means to free from slavery the etymology seems to be something like emit from one s hand This passage sets off a debate about slavery p 129 So it is the sulphur of Jean Calvin, says the Irishman, in English, making war on my nostrils Jean Calvin as in the eponymous progenitor of Calvinist Christian doctrine, to which the Dutch de Zoet would probably subscribe That went right over my head p 151 moxibustion n a form of East Asian medicine involving mugwort, which is apparently dried and burned, or actually burned into the skin p 174 Maria and Iesu sama I had no idea there were all these Christians in Japan Spanish and Portuguese Jesuits brought Christianity to Japan in the 16th century and apparently it was so popular the Shogunate saw it as the preliminary incursion of European imperialism, and made moves to snuff it including killing lots of people and instituting the ritual of fumi e , resulting in Japan s legendary seclusionist policy that lasted until the Perry Expedition in the 19th century I know so, so little about history Sigh p 178 febrifuge n drug to reduce fever, also known as an antipyretic p 193 Van Diemen s Land pn another name for Tasmania The indigenous Palawa went extinct after encountering Europeans p 199 Men of commerce, sir for the most part, had their consciences cut out at birth Better an honest drowning than slow death by hypocrisy, law or debt Ah, a man after my own heart p 332 Ibani qui poterant qui non potuere cadebant I think there s a typo and it should be Ibant qui poterant, qui non potuere cadebant, which means Those who could have gone, those who could not have fallen, which seems appropriate I guess Marinus is referring to this pastel by Dutch painter Cornelis Troost, but the painting seems to depict drunken party goers trying to head home A joke, I guess Where in Hell does Mitchell get this stuff p 366 podagra n synonym for gout p 375 bagnio n literally a bath house, though in this sense probably whore house p 381 ingravescent adj gradually worsening I like how even the Cpt objects to the arcane language Not that I m objecting I m doing the opposite p 407 Reverse our reverses Penhaligon, Shiroyama, and Marinus all employ this phrase To what end, Mitchell p 429 Regarding the V sign and the Battle of Agincourt as I dimly recalled while reading this passage, the French supposedly threatened to cut off the first two fingers of English longbowmen, and the English thus used those same fingers to taunt the vanquished French However, Wikipedia claims the story is apocryphal, and that the gesture s first recorded use dates to the early 20th century p 430 Quid non mortalia pectora cogis, Auri sacra fames Apparently from The Aeneid, this translation has it as, Cursed lust of gold, to what dost thou not force the heart of man p 431