The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell tended to focus on characters who were disestablishmentarians. Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, and Somni-451, at least, were all standing or fighting against the entrenched order. Cloud Atlas was also suffused with change, both cultural and scientific. Of course, characters in fiction must suffer at least “modest calamity” to keep the reader interested. In Cloud Atlas, the themes explored in each of the sections generally revolved around power and so-called progress. Mitchell is neither a lone pioneer nor the first explorer of these ideas, of course, but he is something of a present day virtuoso. He weaves grand stories that turn and sparkle the truth so that we see facets of the world that are newly impressive.

BEWARE SPOILERS

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet follows that tradition. Some reviewers have called Jacob de Zoet a step back for Mitchell. There is some validity in that position. The middle section contains a number of echoes of “An Orison of Sonmi-451” and, in that sense, is a return of sorts.

The nuns on Mount Shiranui are forcibly impregnated and their newborns killed. They are fed “solace”, an addictive substance that may turn to poison if discontinued. The mothers receive fabricated letters of their babies’ wonderful lives as they purportedly grow to adulthood outside the nunnery. The mothers are promised that they will eventually be reunited with their children and will be provided a comfortable pension while they live out their days in familial bliss. The nuns are similar to the womb tanks of “An Orison of Sonmi-451”. Fabricants are fed “soap” which makes them more pliable and prevents escape by killing them if they do not continue to ingest it. Further, the fake letters from the nun’s children are strikingly similar to the fake promotion ceremonies for the “Twelvestarred” in Cloud Atlas. Fabricants are promised a life of leisure after years of service when, in fact, the fabricants are slaughtered. The corporation perpetrating this fraud produces testimonials and videos of Twelvestarred fabricants purportedly living out the dream. The parallels are obvious and must have been intentional.

Or, maybe they were not. David Mitchell states on The Bat Segundo Show that he had not thought about the symmetry between the baby farm on Mount Shiranui and the womb tanks in Cloud Atlas. This makes me question whether my entire take on the novel is a bit off. Damn authorial intention. It’s the words that count.

Even if I was wrong about the connections between womb tanks and nuns, there are many connections between the novels. Mitchell explicitly refers to Cloud Atlas at least once:

West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds.

And there are more subtle allusions to that and other works (of both his and other authors) as well. Adam Ewing sails aboard the Prophetess in Cloud Atlas; Jacob sails out of Dejima on a ship named Profetes in Thousand Autumns. A character mentions “some Yankees from Connecticut”. That last one could be my own imagination again.

But none of this really answers the question of whether this is a good novel or what its strengths might be. Mitchell has stated that he tries always to write in a new way, to avoid writing in a distinctly Mitchellian style. For this, people sometimes criticize him as a mimic or ventriloquist rather than an accomplished stylist in his own right. I am not sure either the criticisms or Mitchell’s stated goals are entirely valid. His efforts to forge new stylistic ground leads him, in this novel, to tell his story in what, to some readers, is annoying prose. As an example, I give you this scene, in which Uzaemon, an interpreter, asks Shuzai, a swordsman, what it was like to kill a man:

”Afterward,” says Shuzai, “in marketplaces, cities, hamlets . . .”

The icy water strikes Uzaemon’s jawbone like a Dutch tuning fork.

“. . . I thought, I am in this world, but no longer of this world.”

A wildcat paces along the bough of a fallen elm, brdiging the path.

“This lack of belonging, it marks us” – Shuzai frowns – “around the eyes.”

The wildcat looks at the men, unafraid, and yawns.

It leaps down to a rock, laps water, and disappears.

“Some nights,” Shuzai says, “I wake to find his fingers choking me.”

I did not find the sentence long paragraphs and the interjection of descriptive prose into what would normally be unbroken dialogue to be disruptive. But I did not find it particularly effective either. I understand how it pulled some readers out of the story more than it enhanced the atmosphere for them. For me, it occasionally worked, occasionally did not. Whether the prose was pleasing or annoying seems to be a major dividing line between those who think the novel was very good and those who do not.

The other reason I pulled this quote is because of the prominence of religious references. The idea of being in the world but not of the world is, if not pulled from, then synchronous with John 17:11 and 16 of the New Testament. Likewise, Shuzai’s feeling that he has been marked in some way is reminiscent of Cain after he killed Abel. Mitchell’s examination of religion and weaving of religious themes into his novelistic tapestry is almost required given the times and the prominent role the conflict of cultures plays in Thousand Autumns, but Mitchell was after something more than satisfying necessity. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas both have sections that are heavily focused on religion and belief. Mitchell has returned for a third time to the topic.

I have not seen many reviews talk about the importance of religion and metaphysical beliefs in this work. I think reviewers are remiss in ignoring the centrality of belief, rationality, and how humans are to reconcile the two.

James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, recalled Henry James’s argument that “the novel should press down on ‘the present palpable intimate’” and argued that Thousand Autumns is “only palpable”. He compares it to a fairy tale, as a book that could have been set “in fifteenth-century Spain or eighth-century Britain” with no real change in result or accomplishment. James Wood is wrong.

Henry James alsoEdith Wharton in discussing James said that “every great novel must first of all be based on a profound sense of moral values”. I have stolen this quote from A Commonplace Blog. That blog’s proprietor, D.G. Meyers, has advocated argued the idea that “an ingenious plot…serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy.

The plot of Thousand Autumns is too long and convoluted for me to summarize effectively and, I will assume, that those reading this post beyond the spoiler warning already have some familiarity with the plot. The argument that David Mitchell is putting forward in Thousand Autumns has to do not so much with power and subjugation, but more specifically with belief, faith, and reason. The domination of some humans by others is certainly a major theme, but I think the more focused point of argument is the intersection of religion and rationality. On this view, Dr. Marinus is central to the book, though not to the plot. The plot could merrily clip along without Marinus or without ever giving Marinus a speaking role. But he provides important premises for the plot as argument to work and may well be its conclusion.

Abbot Enomoto is much more central to the plot and, perhaps unwittingly, provides a key premise to the argument when examining silvered European mirrors.

”Silver is more truth,” remaks the abbot, “than copper mirrors of Japan. But truth is easy to break.”

Jacob learns the fragility of truth when he forges a signature, putting himself in a precarious position when he later tries to stand on principle. The plot argues and Jacob comes to a new understanding of the naivete of certainty. Meanwhile, Dr. Marinus stands largely outside the plot and, yet, is a central character because he shares what I believe to be Mitchell’s primary concern. Marinus exposes Jacob to ideas that profoundly affect the course of Jacob’s maturation and, in that indirect way, influences the argumentative plot of the novel.

Jacob contemplates the details, and the devil plants a seed.

What if this engine of bones – the seed germinates – is a man’s entirety . . .

Wind wallops the walls like a dozen tree trunks tumbling.

. . . and divine love is a mere means of extracting baby engines of bones?

Jacob thinks about Abbot Enomoto’s questions at their one meeting. “Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?”

Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”

“Then where” – Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton – “is it?”

“The soul is a verb.” He impales a lit candle on a spike. “Not a noun.”

The important thing in life is not belief, not Jacob’s pious Christianity nor Abbot Enomoto’s potentially true but horrifying cult nor any other character’s particular metaphysical commitments. In fact, those sorts of commitments are impediments to true soul rather than nourishments for it. The seed has been planted in Jacob that his orthodox Christianity misses the point of life, but the full realization does not hit until later, through Dr. Marinus.

[Jacob:] ”I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?”

“Oh, Descartes’s methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark . . . So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove . . .”

This is why James Wood missed the point. Enlightenment is central to the book and, crucially, central to Mitchell’s thesis. While Mitchell demonstrates and argues for the best of Enlightenment values, he makes clear that science and the scientific method will not lead to paradise. One only has to look at “The Orison of Sonmi-451” to see that. And Dr. Marinus will tell you that too:

“Please ask Dr. Marinus this, Interpreter: if science is sentient, what are its ultimate desires? Or, to phrase this question another way, when the doctor’s imagined sleeper awakens in the year 1899, shall the world most closely resemble paradise or the inferno?”

Goto’s fluency is slower in the Japanese-to-Dutch headwind, but Marinus is pleased by the question. He rocks gently to and fro. “I shan’t know until I see it, Mr. Yoshida.”

The argument put forward here is similar to ideas put forward in Cloud Atlas, the world, science, man, history, has no directional arrow. The world spins, history repeats, and man regresses as often as progresses. The duty of the individual is to other individuals rather than to ideas, beliefs, or metaphysical commitments.

Contrary to Wood, this argument could not have been made as effectively in pre-enlightenment Spain or England. A Dr. Marinus would not make as much sense there, could not have the same centrality. The setting here is a clash of cultures, but a clash unlike those in fifteenth century Spain and eigth century England. Those clashes had winners and losers; those clashes support the thesis of progress. While Mitchell has stated that he thought that the history of Dejima provided an excellent setting for a story, it would be error to suppose that any number of other dramatic settings would serve Mitchell’s purposes equally. This is not simply an entertaining historical novel. Mitchell is carrying his argument further and Japan at the turn of the eighteenth century is an ideal setting for that argument. Newton, Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers are necessary to the argument, but so too, I think, is a violent clash of cultures which is not aimed at conquest or conversion. This is a clash possibly unique to Dejima and uniquely useful for building on and deepening the arguments so masterfully presented in Cloud Atlas. The Japanese and Dutch strove to coexist rather than to conquer or convert.

Whatever flaws there may be in the prose or storylines or entertainment value of Thousand Autumns, the book is more than a fairy tale. There are serious arguments made here and the plot does push forward those arguments with some force. This is a book that can bear a re-reading, this is a book that “is based on a profound sense of moral values”, this novel does exert “a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure”. I am not prepared to say that this is a great novel, but I believe it is being misread and underread by many, including, specifically, James Wood.

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9 Responses to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

  1. Trevor says:

    Thank you so much, Kerry, for engaging in a conversation about why this book has value and not simply saying, like so many professional reviewers, that it just does.

    I’m not sure I agree that the Enlightenment philosophies are something Mitchell is exploring or if they’re merely the most likely ingredients for his characters. When I read it, I came away feeling that the characters are rehashed from other stories where characters had similar conversations and doubts and feelings, so naturally those discussions would find there way here. Besides that, I never quite saw how they strengthened or were strengthened by what I thought to be a rather hollow plot with an elaborate texture.

    However, you’ve given me cause to reconsider. My faith in Mitchell and in your good opinion is such that I strongly desire, despite my doubts, to think this book is more than just a fairy tale.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, very much, Trevor, for the humbling compliment of your faith in my good opinion. I am sure to prove it unwarranted soon.

      I am also very pleased that you have reminded me of your own review. Before writing the above post, yours was one of a number of reviews I consulted. I meant to address one of the issues you raised, but, going on 2000 words and limited time already, I forgot to do so.

      The point was about the predictability of the characters. Notwithstanding that I do believe Mitchell was engaging some deeper themes than Wood acknowledges, the characters were easily classified as “good” or “bad”. I think this has a nasty consequence of undercutting the “argument” I laid out above. It is not fatal to it, but it certainly makes it a bit less elegant. If the reader can so easily classify everyone, perhaps there is a larger moral or religious system that allows such easy segregation.

      You have also made a good point that Mitchell spends too much energy having his characters explicitly state the ideas he, presumably, is trying to get across rather than showing it through narrative.

      Still, I do think Mitchell goes beyond Enlightenment ideas. Enlightenment thinkers, after all, tended to believe that the world is, in principle, knowable. This is an idea that Dr. Marinus to which Dr. Marinus does not subscribe.

      John Self hit on a point where Mitchell makes a somewhat subtler point, and that is the fact of “how little a man’s own key life events matter to others or to posterity.” People throughout the book do not or cannot remember a face. I think this aspect, too, fits with a more nuanced view than the Enlightenment crowd generally held, that is, the subversion of the self in favor, not of the greater good of religion or science or truth, but in favor of one’s fellow man. And by fellow man, I mean a specific, identifiable human being. Like Yayoi. But, here again, the point was made explicitly by Orito when she asked herself, likely in italics, whether her freedom was worth more than Yayoi’s life.

      In short, I think your criticisms are very good ones, Trevor, better than the one on which Wood chose to focus. Or, maybe, I am seeing things that aren’t there…..you know, like womb tanks.

      • Trevor says:

        In your penultimate paragraph you’ve touched on what was my favorite part of the book. The last short section, in particular, I thought finally transcended the narrative we’d had up to then as things started to drift. Of course, one of the reasons I felt that drift was because I felt it started drifting to the next book in David Mitchell’s mythology: Cloud Atlas. And I’m particularly excited about how you tie this to your thesis about how the book goes beyond the Enlightenment. Very nice.

      • Kerry says:

        Trevor,

        Yes, I think John Self did a great job. In fact, as much as I disagree with Wood’s major criticism, I think your, John’s, and Wood’s reviews provide a very good overview and analysis of the book.

        Tanks for that last thought. I appreciate it and am happy my attempt to tie John’s observations and the Enlightenment aspect together was at least semi-coherent. I do think there is something there.

  2. Hi Kerry, although I’m not sure I agree with your claim about the centrality of Enlightenment, I really enjoyed your post. Nicely done! Can I press you on a few of points? You write: “The duty of the individual is to other individuals rather than to ideas, beliefs, or metaphysical commitments.” But isn’t this conception of duty an idea, a belief, and indeed a distinct metaphysical thesis? Namely, truth is difficult; error, easy; so we best try to get along. Next, and I’m probably just quibbling (sorry!), you write about “Enomoto’s potentially true but horrifying cult.” But it’s not potentially true because we know it to be positively false—no one in his twisted crazy insane clan achieved immortality. Again, a great and wonderful bit on de Zoet.

    Cheers, Kevin

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, Kevin!

      I could have written a tighter sentence than the one about “the duty of the individual”. I did not mean to suggest that I thought Mitchell was making a strongly solipsistic argument, in which nothing is knowable. Certainly, none of his characters feel this way. But the “good” characters (who are far too easy to identify, as Trevor points out) all do abandon any strict adherence to a belief in the unqualified goodness of religion, science, or other potentially comprehensive belief system. Instead, I think, all metaphysical or “worldview”-type beliefs should be, at best, contingent. Whether he intended it or not, the conception is along the lines of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, thus, Dr. Marinus’s belief in the efficacy of the Jesuit’s bark; and along the lines of Rorty’s formulation of the liberal ironist, someone who recognizes the contingency of their own beliefs while maintaining a commitment to the reduction of suffering. I use Rorty as an example, only to point out that, whether this type of argument was intended, something deeper can be gleaned than a simplistic solipsism or relativism.

      On the second question, I made a considered decision to put “potentially true” in the sentence. First, the novel is, at best, ambiguous regarding whether Enomoto has supernatural powers. He, apparently, kills a snake and a moth without touching them. At least, I saw nothing to confirm that these were conjurer’s tricks, though that possibility is open. A supernatural element may or may not have “actually” existed in the novel given Orito’s final appearance to Jacob, but I tend to think it was there. Mitchell has used ghost stories and apparent miracles before.

      But, Enomoto did not live, so none were immortal. That does not defeat the truth of the quote. The fact that Dracula or Lestat may have been killed does not prove that vampires are either unreal or cannot be immortal. Vampires (in most vampire fiction) are immortal as long as they avoid the sun and wooden stakes. Abbot Enomoto’s dying words are to chastise Shiroyama (is that right?) for being a fool because the baby formula did work. He clearly believed the immortality potion worked. Granted, in the real world I would mark him down as insane without a thought. But, Mitchell has him achieving apparently supernatural feats earlier. An elixir that prevents aging would not, I would imagine, prevent one from dying any number of deaths, so long as the number of deaths is limited to one. Surely “immortality”, in the sense that vampires and Enomoto use it, does not require immunity to wooden stakes or Samurai swords, the sun or poison. I do believe the cult is potentially true (within the confines of the novel).

      This is important to the book because it does not matter whether the cult of immortality is true or if it is not. The cult is evil because it perpetrates cruelty. This fits with Mitchell’s argument (as I see it) that one’s primary commitment should be to individuals rather than ideals, to others rather than to the self.

      Thank you, very much, for the thought-provoking comment. I do no think the novel is “great”, but I do think there are aspects Wood missed and that, at least, deserve to be fleshed out a bit. And, please, do tell me if you disagree. I am not at all convinced that I have gotten right my evaluation of those aspects I have addressed.

      Regards!

  3. Wow, Kerry, this is a really thorough review and analysis of the book. I’m not sure where to start except to say I like the way you’ve grappled with the idea of his exploring and extending Enlightenment. Dr Marinus is clearly a key figure and I like the way you discussed his views in relation to Jacob’s, as well as those of other characters. I felt there was a lot to explore here and, like you, feel that it could well do with re-reading. I think more of these ideas – particularly re belief/faith and reason – could fall into place though that. Thanks for much food for thought.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks! I see you finished the book during my “dark period”. I am sorry I missed it. I mean that both as apology and, really, I wish I had seen it. You pull out additional themes and ideas I had not considered because, as you say, Mitchell did try to cover a great many topics, themes, and ideas.

      I won’t say much more about your review here (I’ll visit your comments for that), but I did like the way you summed up the themes as “about ‘imprisonment’, both literal and metaphorical.” So true. Everyone in the book is somehow trapped, everyone fighting for just a bit more freedom. I like that, good job.

  4. That’s OK, because after posting I had a quick look for blog reviews and missed yours. It was Max who clued me into it. Between us I reckon we cover almost as much ground as Mitchell did!

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