Monday 10 May 2010

'How gleefuly life shreds our well-crafted plans.'

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet 
by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is a writer who attracts an evangelical zeal amongst his fans. He is the chosen one, a writer who manages to combine literary panache with Richard and Judy Book Club appeal. I guess that makes me an agnostic. It's not that I don't believe in him but my first experience of reading him was a paperback of Ghostwritten from a charity shop, a book that failed to light my fire as I was reading some pretty big novels at the time and felt that many connected short stories a great novel did not make. The knowledge that Cloud Atlas had a similar set-up to Ghostwritten just put me off, along with the adulation and awards that attended it's publication. So I wasn't as excited as everyone else when proofs were circulated of his new novel, although that all changed as soon as it arrived through my door. Whatever prizes may be handed out this year, the award for sexiest proof will definitely go to this baby on the right.

This picture doesn't really do justice to the gold cover and the small text which seems to appear and disappear as you turn the book in the light (and in the same way the picture above it doesn't give an indication of the beauty of the embossed and intricately foiled pictorial boards of the hardback). I have never been asked so many times what I was reading whilst I held this gold brick in my hands at work. It had been glinting at me from a high bookshelf since Christmas and it was only my apathy that kept it there until a few weeks ago when I finally decided the time had come to see whether Mitchell could convert me. I have seen the light. With an epic narrative that runs forward eighteen years from the last year of the 18th century Mitchell has provided me with one of the most unconditionally joyful reads of the year. I know this is the case because when I should have been making notes or marking passages I was too busy turning pages, passing train stations and almost missing entrances on stage. This means that whilst this might not be the most erudite review you'll read of this book it certainly contains a lot of enthusiasm for a big read that flew by effortlessly.

In 1799 Japan is effectively cut off from the rest of the world. During the era of this ruling Shogunate, Christianity in particular is held in contempt, Western civilization and trade shunned for the most part with one small exception being the small man made island of Dejima, a trading post for the Dutch East Indies Company off the coast of Nagasaki.

This tiny umbilicus is the only bridge between East and West with trade strictly regulated and the language barrier exploited by the Japanese to ensure that they are always in control. The Dutch have found their own ways of making a quick buck by cooking the books and carrying out their own private trades on the route home. In order to maintain their empire and the colony of Batavia in particular, the Dutch need Japanese copper more than ever in order to mint the coins that keep the 'native battalions' from melting 'back into the jungle'. The situation has become so rotten that the ship Shenandoah arrives laden with a new regime to clear out the dead wood, clerk Jacob de Zoet amongst its number. Jacob has travelled to the other side of the world to carve out a career and fortune and make himself a worthier match for Anna, the girl he aims to make his wife back home. But then he meets Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife whom we have already met in a stunning first chapter in which she helps to deliver a difficult birth, a child thought at first to be dead but who then whimpers from under the linen sheet that covers its face and suddenly the 'newborn boiled-pink despot howls at Life.'

After this wondrous act Orito holds a unique position as a female, allowed to study under the tutelage of Dr Marinus, a figure who acts at first as an obstacle to Jacob and his attentions but who later becomes an ally. Their antagonism is brilliantly shown in their opening exchanges culminating in a memorable scene in which Marinus tricks Jacob into volunteering himself as a medical guinea-pig, only to find himself on the receiving end of a 'smoke glister', a kind of enema which sends smoke '"through caverns measureless to man" from anus to oesophagus, whence smoke trickles through his nostrils like incense from a stone dragon, though not, alas, so sweet-scented, given its malodorous voyage...'. The leverage used in his scheme was a meeting with Orito, who has captured the heart of Jacob, taking him even further away from his original plans.

...like a struck tuning fork, Jacob reverberates with the parts and the entirety of Orito, with all the her-ness of her. The promise he gave Anna rubs his conscience like a burr, But Anna, he thinks uneasily, is so far away in miles and in years; and she gave her consent, she as good as gave her consent, and she'd never know... Creation never ceased on the sixth evening, it occurs to the young man. Creation unfolds around us, despite us and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we like to call it 'Love'.

I don't want to go into too much of the plot; such an epic narrative means I can only spoil by saying much more, but its breadth and the apparent ease with which Mitchell moves from location to location, and idiom, and character, and atmosphere makes the book, for all its literary credentials, read like one of those supremely orchestrated films of myths and legends. There is plotting, intrigue, double-crossing, love, faith, betrayal, hope, sacrifice, imprisonment and escape; there are brilliantly drawn characters, moments of genuine peril and a compulsive need to turn the page and see where he will take us next. Mitchell's coup is to write the kind of book that feels like a guilty pleasure whilst executing the kind of stylistic flourishes that lift it far above that. There are times when the sentences shorten to describe a landscape, becoming like the simple, black brush strokes that typify both the writing and art of Japan. There are times when the effects of opium, or even of love, bend and warp the prose to create a dizzying effect on the reader. And there are times when Mitchell gets the wind beneath his wings and just soars. I am about to lay an almighty extract on you, one I wondered about including, but then I reasoned that if I can be bothered to type it all up then the least you could do is have a little read of it.

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike topped walls and treble-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed form kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries' vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters' sons sharpening axes; candle-makers, rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottle-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers; lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses; heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses; prisoners haunted by happier lives and ageing rakes by other men's wives; skeletal tutors goaded to fits; firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits; tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars,; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year-old whores; the once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores; statues of Jizo anointed with posies; syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses; potters; barbers; hawkers of oil; tanners; cutlers; carters of night-soil; gate-keepers; bee-keepers; blacksmiths and drapers; torturers; wet-nurses; perjurers; cut-purses; the newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant; the ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant; over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night's rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

It's a list, but one that becomes poetic and lyrical, hopefully carrying you through it without any effort whatsoever and painting a richly detailed picture in the process. It's possible that it's exactly the kind of passage I might have used against him in the past. But I was so taken with this book, so impressed by its scope, style and heart that I'm kicking myself slightly for having left him out in the cold for so long. This is the first really big book of the year to really deliver for me and if anything else comes along to entertain, excite and move me more before the year is out then I shall consider myself a very lucky boy indeed.


Tom Cunliffe 10 May 2010 at 07:38  

A very good review William. Your experience is very similar to mine - I didn't get on with his earlier works at all and Cloud Atlas left me cold. This one took off however, and created a convincing world astonishing in its completeness.

Mitchell is a great portrayer of "character" - there are so many memorable people in this book, Jacob himself, Dr Marinus, Admiral Penhaligon etc. A fine writer I would say (now!)

dovegreyreader 10 May 2010 at 07:40  

William you give me heart, I will pick this up again.I sometimes wonder if a book can actually be too dazzling when I'm in need of stillness and I think this is why I set it aside after 80 pages or so a while back...plus I needed my sunglasses on to cope with the cover!

William Rycroft 10 May 2010 at 09:39  

Yes, Mitchell isn't a writer to reach for when seeking stillness! His ability to shift location, and therefore style, is extraordinary in this book, he does so with the kind of ease with which a film director can cut to another scene. Weirdly, whilst reading, I didn't feel the writing to be too showy or stylised but since finishing the book I can recall all sorts of amazing touches. The characters too, as you say Tom, are incredibly memorable. I had a moment the other day where I remembered the trajectory of one of the supporting characters and my heart ached for them. I can't remember the last time that happened. I look forward to hearing how round two goes Lynne. Good luck!

Hampers 10 May 2010 at 11:47  

Wow! this is a very good entry i like it. Will certainly visit your site more often.

Anonymous,  10 May 2010 at 15:30  

I joined the Mitchell fan club with Cloud Atlas after having the same lukewarm response to Ghostwritten that you did (a reread since has changed my mind). I'm one of the few people who even likes Black Swan Green.

Your review (and Tom's as well) of this book leaves me eager -- alas, it is not out in North America until the end of June which means my review copy likely won't arrive for another month. I'll just bite my tongue until then.

William Rycroft 11 May 2010 at 00:25  

I hope you enjoy it Kevin. And don't worry about Black Swan Green, several people have been singing its praises at work.

Max Cairnduff 13 May 2010 at 11:39  

He certainly seems to be a "big" writer. I haven't read him yet, Cloud Atlas seemed to me a bit SFy for my then interests (which I grant is odd given I do read SF, but I need to be in a certain mood) and the others have seized me less.

This interests me in part for the subject matter, and it's interesting to see the different takes (I think I missed Tom's, I'll need to look that up). John Self wrote it up today also, again a positive writeup.

It may be that this is his best yet, which would be great. It's disappointing when an author's first is their best.

William Rycroft 14 May 2010 at 00:24  

As John mentioned in his own review this seems to be the book in which Mitchell provides the 'rich unified narrative' that his other books have lacked. That, in part, is what made it such a satisfying read for me.

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