Friday, June 3, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell continues his mesmerizing way with prose, telling a long tale that works on so many levels. I thought that unlike Cloud Atlas this might be a more classic, continuous narrative and it was, in a sense. But Mitchell once again glided from one world to a different one, shifting mood and voice as he portrayed first the claustrophobic Dutch trading post of Dejima, with all its characters and the main protagonist, Jacob de Zoet, and then shifted to two successive scenes on mainland Japan, and finally told the story from the point of view of an intruding British frigate and its gouty captain.

This is show, don't tell at its best, with a virtuosic command of dialogue and detail. The two main characters, Jacob and Orito, are finely nuanced and immensely sympathetic. The other characters offer a rich tapestry of late 18th century rogues, with the physician, Marinus, playing a deliciously enigmatic role. If anything, the villains -- the abbot Enomoto and the deputy chief Peter Fischer -- lapse into a one-dimensionality that fail to convince. When Enomoto's voice chills Jacob's spine, the reader does not feel that with him because the abbot's character is not sufficiently drawn to feel the threat.

But the overwhelming sense of repression and claustrophobia that characterized both Dutch and Japanese societies in this epoch is wonderfully captured in this story of a small island, cut off from the mainland by fierce cultural resistance and from its European roots by a wide, wide ocean. Jacob and Orito's heroic struggles to maintain their integrity amid truly incredible levels of corruption drive the story, along with their unlikely romance. (to be updated)

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