For over two centuries, mainland Japan’s only official link with the outside world was a cramped artificial island in Nagasaki Bay. Though it was initially built to accommodate Portuguese traders, Dejima would give a more permanent home to the trade mission of the Dutch East India Company. From 1641 until 1853, its residents provided Japan with an irregular supply of cotton, silk and sugar, but also of Western ideas and knowledge. An entire school of rangaku, or Dutch learning, sprang up around the enclave, with Japanese scholars eagerly gleaning details of advances in medicine, physics and other sciences.
This fascinating milieu provides the basis for David Mitchell’s fifth novel, a vividly rendered slab of historical fiction. It centers on the eponymous Jacob De Zoet, a young clerk brought to Dejima in 1799 to help the island’s new chief root out corruption amongst his staff. “To wish you a ‘pleasant’ stay is overly hopeful,” says the deputy by way of welcome, and it isn’t long before our hero’s natural sense of honesty begins to work against him. Such is the curse of being the most righteous man in a crowd of crooks: his fellow employees are more interested in negotiating lucrative personal trades and fiddling the books than following the company rules. “Loyalty looks simple,” one of them cautions De Zoet, “but it ain’t.”
The clerk finds a friend in Ogawa Uzaemon, a talented interpreter who is ecstatic to discover a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations among his book collection. At the same time, he becomes increasingly obsessed with Aibagawa Orito, the female midwife—beautiful but for a disfiguring burn on one side of her face—who takes lessons from Dejima’s resident doctor.
These two will become the focus of the second part of the novel, in which Mitchell pulls back to reveal more of his narrative landscape. Unlike his previous works, The Thousand Autumns is told almost entirely in the third person, though the narrator sees events through his characters’ eyes rather than having a more omniscient view of the action. Later in the book, he takes the perspective of a Malay slave, Nagasaki’s magistrate, and the captain of an English frigate—a thinly fictionalized version of the real-life HMS Phaeton—that makes an unwelcome incursion into the harbor.
Mitchell has done an impressive job in capturing this moment in Japan’s history. He apparently devoted a year of intensive research to the book, though he resists the urge to flaunt this. Telling details crop up in a matter-of-fact fashion: the residents of Dejima circumvent prohibitions on Christianity by drunkenly celebrating “Dutch New Year” on December 25th; the Ogawa family visits a temple en masse to perform a ritual which turns out to involve stamping on a plaque of Jesus.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mitchell said that he “wanted to take something from detective fiction, with its short lines… and write a historical novel that had more of that staccato, machine-gun style.” The Thousand Autumns is certainly a page-turner, with sections that could have been plucked from an adventure story, though the pacing has a wonkiness that’s more in keeping with real life. It also lacks the formal complexity—as well as the contrivances—of Mitchell’s earlier books. This is a sweeping tale, but you couldn’t accuse him of trying to impress the reader with literary tricks.
As the scope of the story widens, the real impact of each character’s actions is brought into question. De Zoet’s infatuation with Aibagawa provides a catalyst for the tumultuous events that follow, but he’s only occasionally an active player in determining his own fate. The same is true of other characters in the book—and such is the nature of history, really.