Jacob de Zoet

June 12, 2010

In my last box of books from the States, BookPage uber-editor Lynn Green included one she thought I might like, something outside the normal mystery/suspense novels that typically populate my columns both in print and online, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Lynn had wonderful things to say about the book, so I packed it into my luggage for the seemingly endless (but in reality, only about eighteen-hour) airplane trip from Tokyo to Halifax.

The airplane offered a pretty good selection of movies, many of which had not yet hit the big screen in Japan, so for the early part of the trip I was in cinema-junkie heaven. After a while, though, I got tired of the tiny screen and the ear-bud sound system, so I curled up in the window seat with my book, whisked away to 19th century Nagasaki, where young Jacob de Zoet has gone to seek his fortune with the Dutch East India Company. By the end of the 1700s, the Japanese have grown intensely wary of foreigners, having had a bad experience with the proselytizing Catholics of Spain and Portugal some years before. The Japanese summarily expelled those offending zealots, and in the intervening years have set up an island enclave for foreign traders, a velvet prison from which no escape to mainstream Japan is permitted. Still, if the winds of trade blow favorably, fortunes can be made, thus attracting young souls the likes of Jacob de Zoet, whose tenuous betrothal to a lovely Dutch socialite depends on his ability to return to Holland a prosperous man.

De Zoet is something of an anomaly in the Nagasaki expat circles, one honest man in a den of thieves. Steadfastly he tries to maintain his standards, but the deck is stacked against him, as even his respected mentor has played fast and loose with company funds. Complicating matters is a clever and oddly attractive Japanese woman of de Zoet’s acquaintance, Orito Aibagawa; de Zoet’s heart has the purest of intentions where she is concerned, but it seems that others of his body parts have a mind of their own. Then, Orito disappears; rumor has it that she has been spirited away to a remote nunnery atop a mountain, there to serve as midwife for a strange sect of fertility worshippers. de Zoet is beside himself with worry, further exacerbated by a purloined scroll which suggests that the babies issuing from the nunnery are used in bizarre fetishistic rituals culminating in their untimely deaths.

It would be quick and easy to draw comparisons to tales of feudal Japan such as Shogun, or The Last Samurai. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be to a book such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Similar elements of mystery and religion exist in both books, to be sure, and both are decidedly dark and edgy; on top of that, both books slot securely into the “literature” category, elevated a cut above the undeservedly maligned sobriquet “genre fiction”.