Book Review: 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' by David Mitchell Stories about sober, upstanding Dutch trading clerks on assignment in Tokugawa-era Japan aren't exactly trendy in the publishing industry ... but that didn't stop David Mitchell. Critic Michael Schaub finds Mitchell's latest novel so inventive and complex that he expects it to easily qualify as one of the best books of 2010.


Book Reviews

'Tis The Season For 'The Thousand Autumns'

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

You don't have to be a publishing expert to guess which trends are driving the book industry this year. In: vampires; werewolves; vampires fighting with werewolves; vampires fighting with werewolves inserted, for some reason, in the middle of a Jane Austen novel. Not in: novels about sober, upstanding Dutch trading clerks on assignment in Tokugawa-era Japan. Nothing against the Netherlands, the shipping industry, or the Edo shogunate, but such stories don't present obvious merchandising opportunities or lend themselves to CGI-enhanced film adaptations.

That's the assumption, anyway — but if anyone can prove it wrong, it's David Mitchell. The 41-year-old British novelist has made a career of defying expectations, while still retaining commercial popularity and ecstatic critical praise. Mitchell is probably still best known for Cloud Atlas, his complex 2004 masterpiece. The novel walked the line between modernism and postmodernism, but was readable to an almost addictive degree. He followed it two years later with Black Swan Green, a comparatively straight-ahead coming-of-age novel — while it lacked the dreamy inventiveness and linguistic pyrotechnics of its predecessor, it still blew readers away with its winsome humor, emotional sincerity, and keen ear for the speech of 1980s British youth.

Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, splits the thematic and stylistic differences between his previous two books, combining Cloud Atlas' fascination with history and the theme of the journey with Black Swan Green's more straightforward narrative structure and understated empathy. Jacob, the title Hollander, takes a job with the Dutch East Indies Company, hoping to earn enough money to impress his would-be wife's father. He's stationed in Dejima, a man-made island near Nagasaki, and given the job of reviewing the company's books — problems with fraud and smuggling have left their accounts in bad shape. As Jacob gets used to life in Japan, and becomes entranced with Orito, a young Japanese woman studying medicine on the island, he's slowly being made into a patsy by the thieves still employed at the company. Things get bad quickly, and the clerk is forced into a series of quick decisions, never sure whether he'll ever escape the walled boundaries of Dejima.

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

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Paul Stuart

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

Paul Stuart

Fans of Mitchell's earlier novels might be surprised at the author's apparent newfound narrative restraint, but as understated as it is, Jacob de Zoet displays the same narrative genius and complex structure as novels like Ghostwritten (Mitchell's 1999 debut, also set partially in Japan). Jacob is an unusually compelling character, despite his straight-laced, sometimes humorless attitude. Mitchell allows the reader to experience the clerk's love for his fiancee, his obsession with Orito, and his attempts to reconcile both. It helps that the supporting characters are so well-drawn and fascinating, from the brilliant but hostile Doctor Marinus (Orito's mentor) to the gleefully venal cook Arie Grote, who speaks in an enchanting and hilarious thief's cant. Mitchell lets his sense of humor shine through, to the greatest effect of his career so far — in one scene, a co-worker laughs at the stares the red-haired Jacob receives while walking down the street. "Don't deny you enjoy the attention," he says, to which Jacob replies, "But I do deny it. I deny it utterly."

It's almost impossible to compare Mitchell to any other living author. Of his contemporaries, perhaps only Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie are as consistently good at creating cerebral, non-obvious adventure novels; you'd have to go back to Nabokov, Tolstoy, or Dickens to find a novelist quite so flawlessly inventive. After five books, it's now safe to say that Mitchell is probably one of our best English language novelists — not everything he writes is perfect, but very few other writers even approach his consistency and wild inventiveness. Jacob de Zoet might not be Mitchell's best novel, but it's closer than you'd think, and it's a testimony to the author's genius that he's fashioned a story about a shipping clerk that will almost certainly turn out to be one of the best books of the year.

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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