Total immersion in 18th century Japan from the perspective of Dutch VOC traders? A distinct possibility when you are reading 'The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet'. David Mitchell's tale of love, friendship, betrayal and mystery on Dejima and mainland Japan will leave you breathless and thoroughly impressed. The descriptions create a vivid world separated from your reading chair by only the thinnest of a paper veil.
Dejima (now a heritage site) was an artificial island that could be used by the Dutch VOC traders as a base of operations for profitable business with the Japanese. Rarely were the Dutch admitted on the mainland however, because Japan was off limits for 'aliens'. But because a shogun had decreed that trade with the Dutch was allowed under certain conditions the Dutch were preferred trade partners for a long period in history. This period, rich with exotic customs, possibilities for private gain, temporary Japanese wives for the upper echelons of the Dutch VOC employees, typhoons, slaves, strange and wonderful happenings and obsessive traditions, is now available to us through the literary prowess of one David Mitchell. The characters are memorable: from the troupe of clerks and translators, captains, and samurai's to the sweet heros of the tale: Orito, a Japanse midwife with a strong sense of honour and Jacob de Zoet, a lonely clerk burdened with a moral compass in the midst of less savoury and trustworthy individuals.
After I enjoyed the Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas last year, I decided to read everything David Mitchell had ever written, so just recently I finished 'The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' or as it is called in Dutch: 'De niet verhoorde gebeden van Jacob de Zoet'. I read it in Dutch and I wholeheartedly recommend everyone who knows the language to do likewise. I usually try to read books in their original language, but here I made an exception. The translators Harm Damsma and Niek Miedema (Dutch names, if ever..) really added an extra dimension to the story by rendering the tale in the rich and succulent language actually spoken by the Dutch protagonists. Now the characters truly jump off the page. Their language is vibrant, baroque at times, often funny and dripping with delightful mutterings. No wonder Damsma and Miedema were nominated for the European Literature Prize for their work.
I highly recommend this book. Mitchell is firing on all cilinders here with this trademark storytelling, delicate prose and deft descriptions. And because you are in the Mitchellverse, don't be surprised if halfway through the story you suddenly feel yourself catapulted into another book. 'The Thousands Autumns' is another part of Mitchell's Uber-book, so be ready to meet some characters that also make appearances in other works. But it all comes together in the end and the book is therefor more of a narrative unit than Cloud Atlas and the Bone Clocks. But still...so many birds again. (What's with the birds anyway? He really should explain this sometimes, or then again perhaps not...)
Here is an interesting and recent talk from the very likeable Mr Mitchell. Enjoy!