The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

May 13, 2010

Acclaimed British novelist David Mitchell published The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in 2010. This work explores the relationship between the Dutch East Indies Company and Japan in the 18th century, a time when Japan was desperately trying to av...

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Acclaimed British novelist David Mitchell published The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in 2010. This work explores the relationship between the Dutch East Indies Company and Japan in the 18th century, a time when Japan was desperately trying to avoid becoming “contaminated” by outside influence.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, first published in 2010, is the fifth novel by British author David Mitchell. It is a historical novel set during the Dutch trading concession with Japan in the late 18th century, during the period of Japanese history known as Sakoku.

The novel won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize regional prize (South Asia and Europe); was long listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, was one of Time Magazine's "Best Books of the Year" (#4 Fiction), and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. It was shortlisted for the 2011 Walter Scott Prize.

David Stephen Mitchell (born 12 January 1969) is an English novelist and screenwriter.


He has published seven novels, two of which, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 2012, Cloud Atlas was made into a film and in 2013 a short film, The Voorman Problem, was made from a scene of number9dream.

The novel begins in the summer of 1799 at the Dutch East India Company trading post Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki. It tells the story of a Dutch trader's love for a Japanese midwife who is spirited away into a sinister mountain temple cult.


Mitchell spent four years working on the novel, researching and crafting a vision of Japan at the end of the 18th century. Small details, such as if people used shaving cream or not, could use up lots of time so that a single sentence could take half a day to write. "It was tough," Mitchell said. "It almost finished me off before I finished it off."


The origins of the novel can be found in 1994 when Mitchell was backpacking in western Japan while on a teaching trip. He had been looking for a cheap lunch in Nagasaki and came upon the Dejima museum. "I never did get the lunch that day," Mitchell said, "but I filled a notebook with information about this place I'd never heard of and resolved one day to write about it."


Some of the events depicted in the novel are based on real history, such as HMS Phaeton's bombardment of Dejima and subsequent ritual suicide of Nagasaki Magistrate Matsudaira Yasuhide (Nagasaki bugy?) [ja]. The main character, Jacob de Zoet, bears some resemblance to the real-life Hendrik Doeff, who wrote a memoir about his time in Dejima.


Late in the book, "land of a thousand autumns" is described as one of the names used by the Japanese for Japan.


Sam Jordison

The votes are in -and there's a runaway winner: The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet. David Mitchell's most recent novel, published in 2010, won nearly as many nominations as all his others combined.


It was described variously as "a terrific, surprising, masterful work of fiction", "one of my favourite books", "stunning", "his most accomplished novel in execution, style and artistry", "one of the most beautiful stories" and "breathtaking".


That doesn't entirely fit the critical consensus. No less than Dave Eggers wrote in the New York Times: "It offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive." But while James Wood told New Yorker readers, "By any standards, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a formidable marvel," he also had a few doubts. "It is a brilliant fairy tale," he said, but that wasn't entirely a good thing: "Even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can't live off fairy tales." Meanwhile, the LA Times socked it to Mitchell: "The narrative is pockmarked with too many meanwhile-back-at-the-temple leaps, and the thread shows too often when Mitchell tries to stitch together the book's set pieces and character studies. In his earlier books, the disconnect of stories across time and space were fascinatingly and proddingly jarring. Here, they're frequently just jarring."


The Guardian also gave an uncertain review. Christopher Tayler eventually warmed to the book, but also said: "It's clear that Mitchell has a problem when it comes to sustaining a straight narrative without benefit of channel-flicking" and "with one or two exceptions, the characters fall into goodies and baddies as well, and their doings – including the central love story – don't often rise above the needs of the plot."


The Observer was less equivocal. "This may not, quite, be a masterpiece, but it is unquestionably a marvel – entirely original among contemporary British novels, revealing its author as, surely, the most impressive fictional mind of his generation," said Alexander Linklater.


Personally, I am yet to read it, and the fact that it is divisive makes me more interested than ever - especially from the point of view of the rest of the month's discussions. I'm expecting to love it, since that's the reaction I've had to every other David Mitchell book I've read. But, let's see. I'm eager to get going. I expect you are too. To help you out, I'm delighted to say we have 10 copies to give away to to the first 10 readers in the UK to post "I want a copy please", along with a constructive comment relevant to the book. And if you're lucky enough to get your request in quick enough, don't forget to email (Ginny is away for a couple of months) as we can't track you down ourselves. Be nice to her too.



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