Late in David Mitchell’s new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, John Penhaligon, an ambitious, embittered, and gouty British sea captain, sails toward Nagasaki with the hope of breaking the Dutch monopoly on trade with the Japanese Empire. On the way, Penhaligon reads an account of a land that few Westerners have ever seen: “Indeed it seems, John Penhaligon reads, that Nature purposely designed these islands to be a sort of little world, separate and independent of the rest.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet overflows with worlds that are separate and independent from our own. There is Japan itself, the “Cloistered Empire” that chooses to keep itself sealed off from the rest of the world. There is Dejima, a manmade trading island built in the bay of Nagasaki, connected to the Japanese mainland only by a bridge that Westerners rarely are allowed to cross. And there is the House of Sisters, a Shinto monastery that practices ritualistic impregnation and serves as a demonic counter-world to what its head, the Lord Abbot Enomoto, calls the “world below.” Edo-era Japan, it turns out, is less a unified empire than a distant galaxy filled with independent worlds.

This interest in other worlds should be familiar to readers of Mitchell’s earlier work. Cloud Atlas (2004), Mitchell’s best-known and best novel, is really a rotating series of six novellas, each precisely and richly describing a different world, ranging from a futuristic, dystopian Korea to 1850s colonial New Zealand to 1970s corporate America. In Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, Mitchell has flirted with science fiction, and it’s easy to see why: like Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert, Mitchell is, at heart, a creator of alternate universes, each with its own internal logic and customs.

Into the alternate universe of Mitchell’s new novel comes Jacob de Zoet. Red-haired and green-eyed, a model of probity in a world of smuggling, the Dutch clerk Jacob is a stranger in a strange land. The novel opens in Dejima in 1799. Sent to root out corruption and set the Dutch East Indies Company’s fraudulent books in order, Jacob has a thankless task: Arie Grote, the company’s cook, tells Jacob that he can’t stop corruption here, “’cause this is how Dejima works. Stop all these little perquisites, eh, an’ yer stop Dejima itself.” When Unico Vorstenbosch, the chief of the trading station, asks Jacob to sign a falsified document with the promise of future advancement, the clerk bravely refuses and finds himself even more resented and isolated. The somewhat naive Jacob bemoans his fate. His punctiliousness is both economically and morally sound; why, he asks, “must this make my name Iscariot?”

Like the questing heroes of romance, Jacob has come to Japan with the hopes of gaining fortune in order to win the hand of his beloved Anna, who remains in Rotterdam. We never see Anna, and she’s soon out of Jacob’s mind too. In a grotesquely comical scene involving a monkey named William Pitt, urination, and an amputated shin (it’s just as weird as it sounds, but somehow Mitchell pulls it off), Jacob meets and falls hard for a Japanese midwife named Orito Aibagawa. Orito stands out almost as much as Jacob. By delivering the apparently stillborn son of a magistrate, Orito gains the unprecedented privilege of studying with a Westerner, the prickly but wise Dutch doctor Marinus. Orito has a scar running the length of her left cheek, making a desirable (and, from her parents’ perspective, lucrative) marriage unlikely. And as if this weren’t enough to mark her as an outsider, Jacob soon declares his love for her, despite strict prohibitions against intimacy with Westerners.

Soon after this declaration, Orito’s father dies, and complications ensue. In order to satisfy the family’s debts, Orito’s stepmother sells her into quasi-slavery: against her will, Orito is secreted away to Enomoto’s temple on Mount Shiranui. There, the monks engage in lurid rites that supposedly gain them immortality but condemn the nuns to a life of confinement and exploitation. The rest of the novel is filled with dramatic action: Orito’s attempt at a midnight escape from Mount Shiranui; the British bombardment of Dejima, which results in Jacob’s transformation into the quasi-president of the trading island; murders, suicides, and much else.

To describe Mitchell’s plot in more detail is to destroy much of the novel’s pleasure. This may seem strange, since Mitchell is most often praised for his virtuosic, ever-shifting style and his formal experimentation. Critics have noted a similarity to Vladimir Nabokov, another creator of narrative puzzles. Mitchell playfully acknowledges such affinities when Jacob, like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, takes aural delight in the sounding out of his beloved’s name: “Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue’s root; wa, lips.”

But unlike Nabokov, Mitchell delights in traditional storytelling. Imprisoned in the House of Sisters, listening to her fellow sisters describe their prior lives, Orito considers the universal drive to create narrative: “The belly craves food, she thinks, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love, and the mind craves stories.” For Mitchell, to be human is to be a teller of tales. The book is filled with wonderfully digressive stories, as bit characters narrate their lives for pages on end. At times, Mitchell risks losing control of the novel—he simply can’t resist when a narrative complication or side plot presents itself—but, again, he somehow pulls it off.

In one such digressive scene, the cook Grote organizes a card game. As bottle after bottle of rum disappears and Grote makes a killing dealing from an altered deck, each player tells how he came to the strange, liminal world of Dejima. As in much of Mitchell’s fiction, the common thread is exploitation: impressed and exported, the East India Company’s employees have been used up by the Dutch imperial machine. But, as Grote says, “It’s my chief hobby-hawk is the noble art of survivin’.” The world may be built upon abuse and greed, but Mitchell’s characters survive, largely through their ability to transmute misery into story.

A new book by Mitchell generally means a new style, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is no exception. Where Cloud Atlas was defined by its hyperkinetic shifting of registers and Black Swan Green by the painful and painstaking recreation of the voice of a stuttering teenager, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet employs a traditional third-person narrator throughout. Writing as usual in the present tense, Mitchell uses short, one-sentence paragraphs to interrupt characters’ thoughts, cutting rapidly between descriptions of consciousness and descriptions of the physical world:

Beneath his glaze of sweat, he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.

Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable as a woman in a picture...

Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsichord.

...spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon, once...

The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.

 At times, Mitchell sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing in a lively, alliterative, determinately Anglo-Saxon voice: “Winter woods are creaking, knitted and knotted”; “the black bay is crazed by choppy surf; gobbets of sea spray spatter Dejima’s roofs.” The writing is filled with striking verbs—birds do not just call but “scrat, thud, and issue dire warnings”; insects do not just bite but “trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.” Mitchell lovingly uses words like “ruckled,” “scuttled,” and “dappled” (this last word a Hopkins favorite), and these words stand like British islands in a Dutch-Japanese sea.

This verb-driven prose is more than a stylistic tic—it reveals something deep about how Mitchell perceives the world. At one point, Jacob asks Dr. Marinus where the soul, if it exists, is located within the body. We can imagine Mitchell agreeing with his character’s response: “The soul is a verb...not a noun.” For Mitchell, the world, like the soul, is defined by endless, generative action. There is always another style to be used, another story to be told, another world to be created.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the 2011-02-11 issue: View Contents
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