The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

August 18, 2010

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.


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.