Wednesday, December 14, 2011

David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: tell me how I can put down a book that begins with labor and delivery

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetI'm still reeling from the emotional after-effects of David Mitchell's masterpiece, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I finished moments ago.

Set in the 1800s, during the time when Japan's only connection to the rest of the world was her trading relations with the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), the story revolves around Jacob de Zoet, a twentysomething clerk set to check and document the corruption going on in the Company's transactions in Dejima, Nagasaki Bay. There he meets Orito Aibagawa, a midwife, who rises to fame after she successfully saves the lives of both the Magistrate's wife and son after prolonged labor. To tell you the truth, what initially drew me to this book was David Mitchell's scientific descriptions of obstetric techniques in the first chapter—how the attending Doctor Maeno and Miss Aibagawa-san determined the fetal lie, what they did when they suspected a possible cord strangulation, with an illustration so reminiscent of those seen in William's Obstetrics. These details were mixed so expertly with the author's prose.

Jacob, the nephew of a Calvinist preacher, has left the love-of-his-life, Anna, in Holland. He goes to Asia to enrich himself, hoping he'd elevate his social standing, so he could eventually ask Anna's hand in marriage when he gets back. Though they're miles apart, he thinks of her often, but here comes Orito who steals his mind away and enchants him. It's an infatuation that progresses to the beginnings of love. He attempts to express this love to Orito, but he is prevented from openly doing so by the strong cultural prohibitions against intercultural marriages in Japan at the time.

Orito is stolen away to live as a nun in a mysterious Shrine of the Order of Mount Shiranui operated by the powerful Abbot Enomoto. In the Shrine, women are used as birthing machines; their babies are offered as sacrifices to a goddess who gives fruitful harvests in return (I thought of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale). A rescue mission is attempted but fails. At the moment I expected the novel to become a full-blown love story, the focus shifts to politics and culture: the power struggle between the Fischer and de Zoet after Chief Vortsenbosch's leaving, the startling news that the Company is already bankrupt, the arrival of the British ship, Phoebus, and the protracted diplomatic talks between the Dutch and the Englishmen which leads to a short, tense battle at the Harbour.

This is David Mitchell's first book I've read, but it's so well-researched and thought of, brimming with details and stories and accents, that I felt, as a reader, that I was really there, listening to actual conversations and seeing encounters as they do in real life. That's genius.

Scattered all over the book are episodes wherein some characters share their life stories and how they found themselves in Japan. These accounts endeared me to these people and added to the depth of the story: that during Colonial times, and even now, ambition, safety, and escape had to a corresponding price to pay.

Eleven years later, Orito says in hindsight, "When pain is vivid, when decisions are keen-edged, we believe that we are the surgeons. But time passes, and one sees the whole more clearly, and now I perceive us as surgical instruments used by the world to excise itself of the Order of Mount Shiranui."

The story goes full circle. The ending is what I would call tragic—in a romantic sense, at least—and, as you may well have already known, I'm a sucker for those things.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, I'm definitely putting this book on my list of things to read in 2012! Thanks for sharing, Lance.

Thu Dec 15, 11:33:00 AM GMT+8  
Blogger Lance said...

Tell me what you think once you're done reading it, Kat.

Tue Dec 20, 02:29:00 PM GMT+8  

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