Building a bridge between worlds


FICTION: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetBy David Mitchell , Spectre, 469pp, £12.99

IT MIGHT be argued that one problem of the modern world is that, relatively speaking, nothing is forbidden or particularly secret anymore. Information is instantaneous and – in most countries – the core beliefs of any political persuasion, religious creed or scientific theory are only three mouse clicks away.

If you were to imagine an utterly sealed world, bereft of outside information, however, then surely the fan-shaped, man-made island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour in 1799 would seem as alien an environment as could exist – a miniature universe of commerce within sight of Japan and yet kept deliberately apart from it.

Dejima was joined to Nagasaki by only a narrow wooden bridge, tightly guarded on both sides. These planks of wood were also the only bridge allowed between Japan and Europe. While conscious of the lucrative benefits of trading with Europeans, the Shogun of Japan regarded Europeans, and especially their religious beliefs, as an infectious disease that he determined to keep out of his empire.

Dejima was originally constructed to allow trade with Portugal, but after an internal rebellion by a mainly Christian population in Shimabara-Amakusa, the Shogun expelled all European Catholics and let Dejima be populated only by Dutch employees of the Dutch East India Company, which was essentially the world’s first multinational company.

The handful of company employees marooned in this most remote of trading posts can glimpse Japan from across the bridge, but, as a character remarks in David Mitchell’s new novel, you cannot understand a country that does not wish to be understood. The only Japanese males allowed on Dejima are interpreters and guards and servants who double as spies, the only females are prostitutes and their maids. It is a claustrophobic goldfish bowl, an artificial place that has no context or meaning except as a meeting point where fortunes can be lost or made.

Because of being set primarily in this one time and place – albeit with diversions into a sinister convent and onto the marauding pirate ships that were the backbone of the British navy – David Mitchell’s fifth novel is an extraordinarily linear book compared to the multi-layered Ghostwritten, the equally dazzling Number9dreamor his playful and ambitious Cloud Atlas(2004), where a sextet of different narratives jostled for space within one densely packed volume.

But The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoetstill contains a vast and often bewildering array of characters, their entire life histories skilfully stitched into the narrative through conversational asides and paragraphs grace-noted with subtle revelations. Mitchell has done his historical research and expects readers to do their own in that we hit the ground running with dozens of lives cramming into the opening pages as we are thrown headlong into the corralled, tightly regulated and intensely spied-upon island of Dejima, where nobody is ever truly trustworthy and knowledge is a form of power.

The book is set in that cusp period of revolutionary upheaval that marked the end of the 18th century. Rather like those Soviet cosmonauts launched into space who returned to discover that their country had dissolved itself in their absence, the Dutch East India Company employees stranded in Dejima have no way of knowing that the company they work for has, in fact, gone out of existence and the short-lived Dutch Republic to which they pledge allegiance is about to become a puppet monarchy under Napoleon.

Jacob de Zoet arrives into this moral quagmire as a young assistant clerk to the new Chief who has been sent there by the company to root out corruption, but whose own greed quickly outstrips any reforming zeal. That hybrid isle perched between two worlds is no place for morality, yet morality and stubborn character are the two virtues which de Zoet possesses. He is there to seek the fortune that will enable him to return and marry a Dutch girl, yet the biggest risk he takes is not for personal gain but because Calvinism is ingrained in his character and so, although aware of the dire consequences of the discovery of any Christian artifact on Dejima, he refuses to be parted from his family Psaltery.

The novel’s main relationship is between de Zoet and a young Japanese midwife with a scarred face who has been granted permission to attend medical lectures on Dejima. Her abduction forms the core of the middle section, yet part of Mitchell’s skill is to keep the impetus of this unconsummated relationship alive, even though the two of them meet only a handful of times over two decades.

For de Zoet she proves to be as unknowable as Japan itself, that land of a thousand autumns where he slowly comes to be respected for his awkward honesty and steadfast refusal to be diverted from his conscience, even when that tiny island briefly becomes the last place on earth where the Dutch flag flies.

THIS NOVEL IS NOTan inventive tour-de-force in the same way as Cloud Atlas,yet a surplus of cleverness can be a curse and this is probably Mitchell’s most accessible book. It runs to almost 500 pages, yet almost every sentence shimmers with precise, opaque and brilliantly realised writing, until de Zoet finally flits unobtrusively back into the Europe he has left.

An historical saga on a deliberately grand scale, it never loses its quiet intimacy and is a brilliantly realised account of two worlds, conjoined by trade and desperate to shut each other out, linked by one tiny wooden bridge that in turn is spanned by the moral stubbornness of a clerk with a hidden Psaltery.

Dermot Bolger is a novelist and poet. His teenage novel, New Town Soul, will be published in June and the premiere of his new play, The Parting Glasstakes place in the same month.