Monday, October 07, 2013

Not Quite A Thousand Autumns

I've always felt iffy about David Mitchell's writing. (Think 'Cloud Atlas') But since this came highly recommended by the girlfriend (whose taste in books I unerringly trust), I decided to give this a shot- 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet'. In spite of this being a story about forbidden love in history somewhere in 1799 off the coast of Japan. (Read reviews here, here , here, and here.)

Idealistic Jacob de Zoet is the nephew of a pastor, an educated young clerk with the Dutch East India Company who arrives in the port of Dejima, near Nagasaki in southwest Japan. That's in the Edo era, when Japan is closed to all foreigners. Jacob plans to make a name for himself and return to Holland to marry his love, Anna. He's supposed to clean up the accounts for the past five years, but neither the Dutch nor the Japanese want that, or welcome his efforts.

After Acting-Chief de Zoet's departure on the Second Day of the Ninth Month 
'The Dutchman may look like a goblin from a child's nightmare,' says Shiroyama, noticing his advisers' sycophantic sneers, 'but he is no fool.' The sneers quickly turn into wise nods of agreement. 
'His manners are polished,' approves one city elder, 'and his reasoning clear.' 
'His Japanese was odd,' says another, 'but I understood most of it.' 
'One of my spies on Dejima,' says a third, 'says he studies incessantly.' 
'But his accent,' complains an inspector, Wada, 'was like a crow's!' 
'And you, Wada, speak Dazûto's tongue,' asks Shiroyama, 'like a nightingale?' 
Wada, who speaks no Dutch at all, is wise enough to say nothing, 
'And the three of you,' Shiroyama waves his fan at the men held responsible for the kidnap of the two Dutch hostages, 'you owe your lives to his clemency.' 
The nervous men respond with humble bows.

Of course, Jacob de Zoet kinda got smitten with a local- Aibagawa Orito, a young well-born, well-respected and well-educated Japanese mid-wife who receives privileges rarely extended to women of that era in Japanese society. She however, has a facial scar that deems her unmarriageable by those standards. This is where it gets bizzare. She is weirdly (perhaps not by Japanese standards then) betrothed to some douchebag abbot 'demigod' who runs a nunnery 'Mount Shiranui Shrine' where women are drugged, impregnated and kept for decades against their will, never seeing the light of day again. When she disappears, Jacob is obliged to set out on a rescue mission.

At this point, I was like, am I reading the story of Persephone and Hades or what?

Anyway, earlier in the book, in the painting of Miss Aibagawa's abilities as a mid-wife, I didn't care for the detailed description of the delivery of a dead baby, never mind if it illustrated the author's understanding of the delivery process and the mid-wife's obligations.

There're so many characters appearing that it gave me quite a headache to keep track. Mid-way through, I got up, grabbed a pen and a notebook, and mapped them out. The author writes like he's playing a guitar solo that he thinks audience would lap up. Flamboyant narrative style. There're many interpreters popping up in the books to translate things and we, the readers can read that. Oh how clever. The author totally uses these interpreters to best effect, completely wielding the language like he owns both Japanese and Dutch. And English, of course *roll eyes* It's quite an entertaining story lah.


Anonymous said...

Sounds so bizarre!

D said...

I was holding my breath to see if you liked it :)

imp said...

fern: hahahaha. You gotta read it!

D: i like it better than his other books. And i didn't abandon the book halfway!