Friday, 16 July 2010

Review Post 32 - Is David Mitchell mortal after all?!

The David Mitchell readathon has come to an end as I have finally allowed myself to read his fifth, and latest, novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.  This is probably the first time that I have been really excited about the imminent release of a book - being a big fan of classical literature, few of my favourite writers are likely to pen any more bestsellers (or breathe again) -, and I was anxious as to how this book would measure up to the likes of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten.  The result?  Well, I think the post title gives you a hint...

First things first.  The novel, henceforth to be known as Thousand Autumns, takes place in Japan as the eighteenth century is slowly giving way to its successor.  Young clerk Jacob de Zoet, out in Asia with the Dutch East-Asian Trading Company in the hope of making his fortune, arrives on the artificial island of Dejima, a trade enclave for the only foreigners allowed to communicate with the Japanese Empire.  This extension of Nagasaki, part warehouse, part prison, is where copper reluctantly leaves Japan and where modern ideas quietly creep in.  As de Zoet settles into his post, curious about the environment he finds himself in, he meets a unique woman, a native permitted to study medicine under the auspices of Dejima's Dutch doctor, and this is where events begin to unfold.

Sounds good, so far, so why the slightly negative undertones, you may ask.  Well, I think it starts to go a little wrong at the end of the first of the three major sections.  Having concentrated on life in Dejima (and centred itself on Jacob and the start of his life on the island warehouse/prison), the book then whisks us away to focus on a new, albeit connected part of the story.  This is, as any Mitchell devotee could tell you, nothing new; however, where this dislocation works wonders in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, I feel it falls a little flat here, interrupting the tempo of the book and leaving the reader wondering what exactly the point of the story is.

And that is my main issue with Thousand Autumns; I really don't get what he was driving at, and it doesn't really sit as cohesively as the (ironically, even-more-fractured) Cloud Atlas.  Without the benefit of postgraduate qualifications in Literary Analysis, the best I can come up with is that it is 'bitty'; there were times when I was soothed by his writing into a comfortable state and others where I wondered if I'd inadvertently been given an unfinished draft copy (which I would, of course, immediately have flogged on e-Bay).  Perhaps this is partly because of my expectations of the book.  Aside from the obvious difficulty of following his previous works, Mitchell also set himself the task of writing a book set in Japan, but not in Japan, if you see what I mean.  I was expecting, and hoping, for a wider view of the country, seen through Jacob's eyes, and I was a little disappointed when I didn't really get it.

Still, don't go thinking that I'm going to be throwing my copy into my tasteful blue recycling bin (emptied every second Friday morning).  Quite apart from the fact that my elder daughter Emi is fascinated by the beautiful cover design (as usual, I think the British cover beats the North American one hands down...), I did enjoy reading Thousand Autumns, and I suspect that I'll enjoy it a lot more the second time around when my expectations won't be so high.  In addition to a very Murakami-esque scene involving a cat and a tunnel, I enjoyed the continuation of Mitchell's obsession with progress and his slightly pessimistic view of the changes industrialisation and civilisation bring.  Seen in this light, the timing and location are perfect, and the first and last sections could almost be considered book ends to Cloud Atlas.

The most interesting, for me at least, and perhaps most successful feature of this book is the focus on the inherent difficulties in communication.  I have just completed the last unit of my Master's degree, which focused on Intercultural Communication, so it's not surprising that I have been viewing all my reading lately through that prism.  This concept, however, has a lot more to it than the idea that those Japanese are strange and don't think the same as us Dutchies (as I'm sure no-one actually said in the book - although they may well have been thinking it).  In addition to the obvious issues of communicating in a foreign language, there is the difficulty of interpreting the implicit meaning behind the words, even when the words themselves are seemingly straight-forward.  One example from the book is when de Zoet is repeatedly asked in Japanese whether a man retrieved dead from the sea is English.  He senses that there is more to the question than meets the eye but is unable to untangle the hidden message until he asks his interpreter to spell the subtext out for him.

A common misconception is that Intercultural Communication is limited to interactions involving people speaking a different language and coming from different ethnic backgrounds, but Thousand Autumns give several excellent examples of why this is incorrect.  While the Japanese may occasionally be inscrutable, it is with his countrymen (and other fellow Dutch speakers) that our hero has more trouble.  It is this idea of culture in the sense of a group of people with shared interests which de Zoet falls foul of; his failure to realise that Dejima is a long way from either Amsterdam or Batavia leads to his misguided attempt at honesty.  The culture of the marooned Dutch traders is very different to his own...

All in all then, Thousand Autumns is a thoroughly entertaining read, which would be more than enough to expect from most writers.  This however is David Mitchell, so I felt (unreasonably) slightly disappointed on completing the book.  Mitchell obviously spent a lot of time researching the background to this book, writing about a time and a place which obviously fascinate him.  The problem is that I'm not sure this filters through to the reader as much as it should.  Perhaps those expectations of mine really did prevent me from enjoying this work as much as I should have.  Still, I have a suggestion for Mitchell to ponder over if he's looking for ideas for future novels.  The end of Sakoku (Japan's closed nation policy) would make for a more interesting background for a book: why not take a leaf out of Blackadder's book and bring back an illegitimate heir to take centre stage in these historic events?  The Lost Heir of Jacob de Zoet.  I'm willing to listen to offers...