Friday, 20 May 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s doorstoppers seem to be the staple of book groups in recent years. I read The Cloud Atlas for one, and have now read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for a second. Both books are sprawling and overwritten, funny and profound, dazzling in places and just plain confusing in others, but I haven’t regretted picking up either of them.

The Thousand Years of Jacob de Zoet follows the eponymous Zeeland clerk who has come to the Dutch concession port of Dejima in Japan to win his fortune. The port is a manmade island in Nagasaki bay; entry into Japan is strictly forbidden for most foreigners and the country itself is closed. Christianity is outlawed, even for visiting traders from Europe. In one of the books wonderful vignettes, the Dutch pretend that they’re celebrating New Year when in fact they’re having a Christmas meal:

It is understood by the ranked interpreters that ‘Dutch New Year’ on the Twenty-fifth Day of December coincides with the birth of Jesus Christ, but this is never acknowledged in case an ambitious spy one day accuses them of endorsing Christian worship. Christmas, Uzaemon has noticed, affects the Dutch in strange ways. They can become intolerably homesick, even abusive, merry and maudlin, often all at once. By the time Arie Grote brings up the plum pudding, Chief van Cleef, Deputy Fischer, Ouwehand, Baert and the youth Oost are somewhere between quite drunk and very drunk. Only the soberer Marinus, de Zoet and Twomey converse with any of the Japanese banqueters.

De Zoet and Uzaemon have become rivals in love for a beautiful Japanese lady, whereabouts by this point unknown. Still, that’s the last of Uzaemon’s worries. The toasts are about to begin:

Cupido the slave distributes a bottle to each of the two dozen diners... The Malay servant Philander follows, uncorking each bottle. Van Cleef stands and chimes a spoon against a glass until he has the table’s attention. “Those of you who honoured the Dutch New Year Banquet under Chiefs Hemmij and Snitker shall know of the Hydra-headed toast...” Arashiyama whispers to Uzaemon, “What’s a hydra?” Uzaemon knows but shrugs, unwilling to lose more of van Cleef’s sentences. “We make a toast, one by one,” says Goto Shinpachi, “and –” “– and get drunker and drunker, belches Sekita, “Minute by minute.” “...whereby our joint desires,” van Cleef sways, “Forge a – a – brighter future.” As custom dictates, each diner fills his neighbour’s glass.

Interpreter Uzaemon has already witnessed a rather gruesome lithotomy, and is feeling a little queasy before the wine: Mitchell drily points out:

Uzaemon notices how unwell he is feeling.

The toasts continue around the table:

Jacob de Zoet swirls his wine. “To all our loved ones, near or far.” The Dutchman happens to catch Uzaemon’s eye, and they both avert their gaze whilst the toast is chorused. The interpreter is still turning his napkin ring moodily when Goto clears his throat. “Ogawa-san?” Uzaemon looks up to find the entire company looking at him. “Pardon, gentlemen, the wine stole my tongue.” Goblin laughter sloshes around the room. The diners’ faces swell and recede. Lips do not correspond to blurred words. Uzaemon wonders, as consciousness drains away, Am I dying?

Luckily for him, not now...

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