The Thousand Autumns of David de Zoet by David Mitchell – A Review

One thing I did while back home in England for a few weeks, which perhaps gave me a hint that I wasn’t quite ready to finish my time here in Japan, was read David Mitchell’s latest novel The Thousand Autumns of David de Zoet. I suppose that this was my attempt at anchoring myself at least in part to my current home, like a Dutch ship harboured at Dejima. Apart from Japan, but somehow still a part of it.

I’d read a little about David Mitchell a few months ago when a friend of mine sent me a link to a review of Mitchell’s latest effort, knowing my love of literature and of course Japan. Reading the drooling review that seemed to elevate Mitchell into the great Pantheon made me a touch suspicious, as any reviewer that does that for an author rather scares me. Literature being such a varied creature I’ve always been loathed to elevate or decry any work too greatly (except Harry Potter).

Personally, I found my way to the giants of literature via Asterix, Spiderman, my brother’s Tom Clancy and Biggles novels and probably most importantly Nick Hornby. The very notion of a literary canon, never mind one that someone can be elevated to by a single reviewer bothers me immensely. Indeed, the most loathsome old bint I ever encountered while working in a library was one who claimed that, “some people just aren’t readers.” Nonsense, it’s just a case of finding the right book for the right person I told her and off she scuttled thinking far less of me. Hence my annoyance at the notion of the ‘right kind’ of novel that fits neatly onto a mahogany bookshelf in a country pile.

In the end I approached this book partially on the back of endlessly positive, if not always as idolizing reviews, in addition to a little tidbit of information regarding Mitchell’s life. Namely that he lived in Hiroshima for eight years as an English teacher. As such I thought that perhaps, I’d find a relatively honest depiction of the Japanese, not some product of research or a homage to the Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

The novel itself follows primarily the path of the titular character David de Zoet, though fortunately takes the perspective of two important Japanese figures in de Zoet’s life as the novel progresses so as not to leave this a one sided depiction of an outsider perpetually looking in. Like many men de Zoet has ventured to the Orient to seek his fortune and like many men, he has not done so by choice. Sent by a potential father-in-law who views de Zoet as presently unworthy of his daughters affections, de Zoet arrives on Dejima, the artificial island in Nagasaki harbour (designed to allow limited trade with originally the Portuguese and then the Dutch during the Edo period without breaking the Japanese policy of sakoku, or self-imposed isolation) on a daunting and in all likelihood fruitless mission, to clean up the corruption of the Dutch Trading Company. Inevitably this makes him few friends. Couple this with the inevitable mismatch of cultural mores, a clash between emerging modernity and tradition across the land bridge in Japan itself and one has more than enough to keep the pages turning apace.

The Thousand Autumns of David de Zoet, is a wonderful novel. It is ostensibly a story of love and longing that doesn’t fall into the usual traps fiction of this ilk often does.  It manages to finely balance the feelings of disconnection and longing for home, the certainties of a life left far behind. The separation from Japan itself feels tangible and the longing to experience life upon shores, which foreigners dare not have tread alone, is balanced finely with the orientalist mystique that lures them in the first place.

Inevitably, what endears this novel to me so greatly is a feeling of connection with the ideas it articulates. As despite the multitude of reasons each of us currently living in Japan chose to venture here in the first place, it is nice to know that the reasons that beguile us and bid us to continue here are shared by others.

Even if they are fictional.

note: This article first appeared in Yomayama Magazine in their Fall edition.

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