A 'Thousand Autumns' In The Land Of The Rising Sun

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
By David Mitchell
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House
List price: $26
Read An Excerpt

The critical word on David Mitchell is that he walks on water. Mitchell's first novel (written before he turned 30) is called Ghostwritten, and, like his more recent triumph, Cloud Atlas, it's the kind of multi-stranded, inter-textual narrative that automatically gets the label "experimental" slapped on it. Now, his latest novel, called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet swerves into the traditional realm of historical fiction.

The reader reaction, so far, has been ecstatic, I think partly because the suspicion lingers that "experimental" fiction may be too heavy on gimmickry and rather light on story and substance. For a post-modern wunderkind like Mitchell to pull off a straightforward old-fashioned tale like this one is akin to that perhaps apocryphal tale about Michelangelo auditioning before the pope for the job of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling by drawing a perfect circle, freehand.

Far be it from me to give the creatively buoyant Mitchell a dunking in the reviewer's vat of vinegar ... though I do have one small brackish water balloon to lob. Overall, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a beautiful novel, full of life and authenticity, atmosphere and characters that breathe. It manages to do what the best historical fiction always does: make a reader melancholy thinking about all the real-life stories from the past that have melted into air.

You know right off that this is going to be an extraordinary novel because of its setting: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet opens in 1799 on an island called Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan. As our title hero, Jacob de Zoet, first describes it, the "fan-shaped" island is man-made, "some two hundred paces [long] around its outer curve and erected, like much of Amsterdam, on sunken piles." Dajima is the province of the Dutch East Indies Co., and its tiny stone bridge over a tidal moat constitutes the sole gateway between samurai-ruled Japan and the outside world. Young Jacob has arrived there to serve five years as a bookkeeper, after which he hopes to have amassed enough money to marry the wealthy fiancee waiting for him back in Amsterdam. This island outpost of progress is packed with spies, prostitutes, sailors, slaves and con men. It's a sliver of the feverish modern world ruled by commerce, wedged up against resolute feudalism.

David Mitchell i i

David Mitchell's previous novels include Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream and Ghostwritten. He lives in Ireland. Paul Stuart hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Stuart
David Mitchell

David Mitchell's previous novels include Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream and Ghostwritten. He lives in Ireland.

Paul Stuart

Pious Jacob withstands the usual temptations but falls hard for a young Japanese woman he "meets cute" when she runs into his warehouse chasing an ape carrying a severed human leg. I'll skip the explanation — Mitchell revels in, among other things, exuberantly screwball plot twists. Instead, I'll simply say that the woman, Orito Aibagawa, is a midwife whose face has been partly disfigured by an accident involving hot oil. She's a wry creation, but (and here comes my only criticism of Mitchell's otherwise superb novel) when Miss Aibagawa's adventures take over in Book Two, the novel mutates into a Gothic pastiche, complete with a supernatural villain, blood sacrifices and a labyrinthine prison. Mitchell apparently can do everything when it comes to fiction writing, but he should have resisted this detour into the land of Twilight.

Fortunately, it's a wrong turn that's soon righted. Mitchell's chameleon-like gifts as a novelist are on display everywhere else here: in pages-long drunken conversations over cards; in the delicate negotiations between the Japanese hosts and their Dutch business partners; and in the fabulous action scenes. This is a novel in which we're treated to an earthquake, a typhoon and a naval battle worthy of Horatio Hornblower. It's the reveries, though, of the exile Jacob de Zoet that make the most indelible impression. At a decisive moment in the novel, Jacob runs after Miss Aibagawa to tell her he loves her. He's propelled to make this outrageous declaration, we're told, by the inner whisperings of "the Ghost of Future Regret." What a wonderful phrase: "the Ghost of Future Regret" — the same ghost that should be whispering in your ear right now if you have any doubts about reading this strange and singular novel.

Excerpt: 'The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet'

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
By David Mitchell
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House
List price: $26

"Miss Kawasemi?" Orito kneels on a stale and sticky futon. "Can you hear me?"

In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates.

Orito dabs the concubine's sweat-drenched face with a damp cloth.

"She's barely spoken"-the maid holds the lamp-"for hours and hours. . . ."

"Miss Kawasemi, I'm Aibagawa. I'm a midwife. I want to help."

Kawasemi's eyes flicker open. She manages a frail sigh. Her eyes shut.

She is too exhausted, Orito thinks, even to fear dying tonight.

Dr. Maeno whispers through the muslin curtain. "I wanted to examine the child's presentation myself, but . . ." The elderly scholar chooses his words with care. "But this is prohibited, it seems."

"My orders are clear," states the chamberlain. "No man may touch her."

Orito lifts the bloodied sheet and finds, as warned, the fetus's limp arm, up to the shoulder, protruding from Kawasemi's vagina.

"Have you ever seen such a presentation?" asks Dr. Maeno.

"Yes: in an engraving, from the Dutch text Father was translating."

"This is what I prayed to hear! The Observations of William Smellie?"

"Yes: Dr. Smellie terms it," Orito uses the Dutch, " 'Prolapse of the Arm.' "

Orito clasps the fetus's mucus-smeared wrist to search for a pulse.

Maeno now asks her in Dutch, "What are your opinions?"

There is no pulse. "The baby is dead," Orito answers, in the same language, "and the mother will die soon, if the child is not delivered." She places her fingertips on Kawasemi's distended belly and probes the bulge around the inverted navel. "It was a boy." She kneels between Kawasemi's parted legs, noting the narrow pelvis, and sniffs the bulging labia: she detects the malty mixture of grumous blood and excrement, but not the stench of a rotted fetus. "He died one or two hours ago."

Orito asks the maid, "When did the waters break?"

The maid is still mute with astonishment at hearing a foreign language.

"Yesterday morning, during the Hour of the Dragon," says the stony- voiced housekeeper. "Our lady entered labor soon after."

"And when was the last time that the baby kicked?"

"The last kick would have been around noon today."

"Dr. Maeno, would you agree the infant is in"-she uses the Dutch term-"the 'transverse breech position' "

"Maybe," the doctor answers in their code tongue, "but without an examination . . ."

"The baby is twenty days late, or more. It should have been turned."

"Baby's resting," the maid assures her mistress. "Isn't that so, Dr. Maeno?"

"What you say"-the honest doctor wavers-"may well be true."

"My father told me," Orito says, "Dr. Uragami was overseeing the birth."

"So he was," grunts Maeno, "from the comfort of his consulting rooms. After the baby stopped kicking, Uragami ascertained that, for geomantic reasons discernible to men of his genius, the child's spirit is reluctant to be born. The birth henceforth depends on the mother's willpower." The rogue, Maeno needs not add, dares not bruise his reputation by presiding over the stillbirth of such an estimable man's child. "Chamberlain Tomine then persuaded the magistrate to summon me. When I saw the arm, I recalled your doctor of Scotland and requested your help."

"My father and I are both deeply honored by your trust," says Orito . . .

. . . and curse Uragami, she thinks, for his lethal reluctance to lose face.

Abruptly, the frogs stop croaking and, as though a curtain of noise falls away, the sound of Nagasaki can be heard, celebrating the safe arrival of the Dutch ship.

"If the child is dead," says Maeno in Dutch, "we must remove it now."

"I agree." Orito asks the housekeeper for warm water and strips of linen and uncorks a bottle of Leiden salts under the concubine's nose to win her a few moments' lucidity. "Miss Kawasemi, we are going to deliver your child in the next few minutes. First, may I feel inside you?"

The concubine is seized by the next contraction and loses her ability to answer.

warm water is delivered in two copper pans as the agony subsides. "We should confess," Dr. Maeno proposes to Orito in Dutch, "the baby is dead. Then amputate the arm to deliver the body."

"First, I wish to insert my hand to learn whether the body is in a convex lie or concave lie."

"If you can discover that without cutting the arm"-Maeno means "amputate"-"do so."

Orito lubricates her right hand with rapeseed oil and addresses the maid: "Fold one linen strip into a thick pad . . . yes, like so. Be ready to wedge it between your mistress's teeth; otherwise she might bite off her tongue. Leave spaces at the sides, so she can breathe. Dr. Maeno, my inspection is beginning."

"You are my eyes and ears, Miss Aibagawa," says the doctor.

Orito works her fingers between the fetus's biceps and its mother's ruptured labia until half her wrist is inside Kawasemi's vagina. The concubine shivers and groans. "Sorry," says Orito, "sorry . . ." Her fingers slide between warm membranes and skin and muscle still wet with amniotic fluid, and the midwife pictures an engraving from that enlightened and barbaric realm, Europe . . .

If the transverse lie is convex, recalls Orito, where the fetus's spine is arched backward so acutely that its head appears between its shins like a Chinese acrobat, she must amputate the fetus's arm, dismember its corpse with toothed forceps, and extract it, piece by grisly piece. Dr. Smellie warns that any remnant left in the womb will fester and may kill the mother. If the transverse lie is concave, however, Orito has read, where the fetus's knees are pressed against its chest, she may saw off the arm, rotate the fetus, insert crotchets into the eye sockets, and extract the whole body, headfirst. The midwife's index finger locates the child's knobbly spine, traces its midriff between its lowest rib and its pelvic bone, and encounters a minute ear; a nostril; a mouth; the umbilical cord; and a prawn-sized penis. "Breech is concave," Orito reports to Dr. Maeno, "but the cord is around the neck."

"Do you think the cord can be released?" Maeno forgets to speak Dutch.

"Well, I must try. Insert the cloth," Orito tells the maid, "now, please."

When the linen wad is secured between Kawasemi's teeth, Orito pushes her hand in deeper, hooks her thumb around the embryo's cord, sinks four fingers into the underside of the fetus's jaw, pushes back his head, and slides the cord over his face, forehead, and crown. Kawasemi screams, hot urine trickles down Orito's forearm, but the procedure works first time: the noose is released. She withdraws her hand and reports, "The cord is freed. Might the doctor have his"-there is no Japanese word-"forceps?"

"I brought them along," Maeno taps his medical box, "in case."

"We might try to deliver the child"-she switches to Dutch-"without amputating the arm. Less blood is always better. But I need your help."

Dr. Maeno addresses the chamberlain: "To help save Miss Kawasemi's life, I must disregard the magistrate's orders and join the midwife inside the curtain."

Chamberlain Tomine is caught in a dangerous quandary.

"You may blame me," Maeno suggests, "for disobeying the magistrate."

"The choice is mine," decides the chamberlain. "Do what you must, Doctor."

The spry old man crawls under the muslin, holding his curved tongs.

When the maid sees the foreign contraption, she exclaims in alarm.

" 'Forceps,' " the doctor replies, with no further explanation.

The housekeeper lifts the muslin to see. "No, I don't like the look of that! Foreigners may chop, slice, and call it 'medicine,' but it is quite unthinkable that-"

"Do I advise the housekeeper," growls Maeno, "on where to buy fish?"

"Forceps," explains Orito, "don't cut-they turn and pull, just like a midwife's fingers but with a stronger grip . . ." She uses her Leiden salts again. "Miss Kawasemi, I'm going to use this instrument"-she holds up the forceps-"to deliver your baby. Don't be afraid, and don't resist. Europeans use them routinely-even for princesses and queens. We'll pull your baby out, gently and firmly."

"Do so . . ." Kawasemi's voice is a smothered rattle. "Do so . . ."

"Thank you, and when I ask Miss Kawasemi to push . . ."

"Push . . ." She is fatigued almost beyond caring. "Push . . ."

"How often," Tomine peers in, "have you used that implement?"

Orito notices the chamberlain's crushed nose for the first time: it is as severe a disfigurement as her own burn. "Often, and no patient ever suffered." Only Maeno and his pupil know that these "patients" were hollowed-out melons whose babies were oiled gourds. For the final time, if all goes well, she works her hand inside Kawasemi's womb. Her fingers find the fetus's throat, rotate his head toward the cervix, slip, gain a surer purchase, and swivel the awkward corpse through a third turn. "Now, please, Doctor."

Excerpted from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell Copyright 2010 by David Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc.

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