Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dutch Process

I'm continuing to fly through available Mitchell books. I'd picked up The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at the same event where I grabbed The Bone Clocks, and devoured it in a couple of days over the holiday. It was, as I've come to expect from Mitchell, fantastic. It's also quite different from his other books that I've read in some interesting and often pleasant ways.

Unlike many of his books, which have far-ranging structures with a grand narrative that spans the globe and decades or centuries in time, Thousand Autumns is much more local. Nearly the entire book takes place in a span of just 18 months, and of that, the majority of the story occurs on a tiny island just about two acres large. This lets Mitchell show off some different gifts: instead of virtuosic linking together of disparate characters and themes across seemingly impassable temporal and spacial distances, in this book he delves deeply, gradually uncovering more and more aspects of his titular character and the various Japanese and European people he encounters.


I always hesitate to generalize, even though I feel compelled to do so. Many of my favorite authors have a recognizable type that they seem to enjoy working with as protagonists. Murakami famously features supremely passive aimless young men. Stephenson loves brilliant self-taught outsiders. Mitchell seems to like featuring characters with deeply rooted moral centers. These are still flawed characters, and they beat themselves up over the mistakes they make and the people they hurt, but over the course of the novel they become increasingly assured at expressing their beliefs and standing up against oppression.

Jacob is an incredibly likeable character. A devout follower of the Dutch Reformed Church, he continues Mitchell's refreshing trend of positively depicting Christians whose religious belief compels them to do good in the world. (And, to be fair, the book also provides continuing examples of those who use faith as a cover or an excuse for the advancement of themselves and their race.) From the very beginning, he struggles as he must evaluate his various obligations and loyalties. Is it proper for him to smuggle his personal Psalter into Japan, violating an international treaty? May he use deception to root out corruption? Should he obey his superior's direct order to forge a letter? Often, there seems to be no good solution to the dilemmas Jacob faces; it's good, though, so see the struggle, and recognize that for Jacob it actually matters to do the right thing. Surrounded by greed on all sides, he seems determined to stand apart.

Which is not, incidentally, to say that Jacob is a saint or lacks ambition. That's one of the details of his character that I especially enjoyed: in addition to being faithful, he is also a capitalist. He reads Adam Smith, and borrows money to (legally) bring a valuable cargo in to Japan, which he then sells for an enormous profit. This makes him feel very believable, both as a fully-realized character, and also as a Dutchman: he comes from a tradition that values thrift and resourcefulness and belief, and as the novel continues he increasingly comes to stand for a sort of ideal of his people.

MEGA SPOILERS (for Thousand Autumns and Bone Clocks)

While the novel is a bit unusual in its more localized focus, it does share significant themes with Mitchell's other works, along with numerous links to characters and events. One persistent trope is the greedy and unscrupulous taking advantage of the kind-hearted, and Jacob falls to this, hard, about a third of the way in to the novel.

From here, the scope of the novel begins to expand: not so much in space, and definitely not in time, but in humanity and character. The second part of the novel steps away from Jacob: he still exists as a person, but no longer drives the narrative. Instead, the point of view settles over two Japanese acquaintances of his: Orito, a physician's daughter with whom Jacob has fallen in love, and Ogawa, an interpreter and Jacob's closest Japanese friend; unknown to Jacob, Ogawa also loves Orito. Orito has been legally abducted by the evil monk Enomoto, and the guilt-ridden Ogawa embarks on a dangerous quest to free her while Orito first endures, and eventually negotiates with, her life of confinement.

The novel kaleidoscopes even more in the third section, silencing the Japanese pair but introducing many more voices, some minor characters earlier in the novel and others completely new: African slaves serving the Dutch, the Japanese magistrate of Nagasaki, the captain of a British frigate, and Jacob himself all take turns, sometimes reporting the same event from multiple perspectives. This is in some ways similar to Mitchell's wider-ranging narrative style, but it feels much more intimate and closely connected.

It was really interesting to read this novel so soon after the Bone Clocks, and in particular to see Dr. Marinus. Marinus is a major character and narrator in Bone Clocks, and when he first meets the Horologists, we learn about his time on Dejima. There are a ton of references to Marinus's Returner nature in Thousand Autumns, but honestly, if I'd read this book before that one I don't think I would have picked up on them at all. A lot of these are pithy phrases, like "Many lifetimes ago I learned this technique," which I would just happily accept as idiomatic if I didn't know better. Near the end, though, he gets really specific, down to explaining that he isn't afraid of death because he'll just need to wait for a couple of weeks and then can come back again. That's fun to read, but also incredibly impressive, to realize how thoroughly he'd sketched out his cosmology for The Bone Clocks that he could faithfully depict it in a book that didn't really have anything to do with it. And even more so when, upon reading the afterword, I realized that Mitchell has been playing around with the idea for Thousand Autumns since 1994, twenty years before publishing The Bone Clocks. Now, I'm not sure if the whole "decanting of souls" idea has been percolating since then, but it's really cool to see how he's had such a unified vision for his disparate books.

Speaking of which: I'd remarked at the time that The Bone Clocks was unusual in just how explicit it was about, uh, how stuff works: the system by which various people can gain immortality, what powers they hold, and so on. Reading Thousand Autumns after The Bone Clocks was pretty fascinating, since I had already learned how the system worked, and everything fit well; but I think that, within the context of Thousand Autumns itself, the presentation is much closer to a Haruki Murakami-ish or Thomas Pynchon-esque book: we witness a lot of strange things, which seem to imply that there may be a supernatural world out there, but it's ambiguous enough that it seems more tantalizing than definitive. Enomoto does seem to be able to kill insects by waving his hands, but who's to say that this isn't some kind of elaborate trick? Enomoto claims to be hundreds of years old, but we have no way of directly verifying this claim's truth. There is definitely a secret cult that practices child sacrifice in the belief that it will gain them immortality, but again, we can't know if their belief is true.

That is, we can't know within the context of Thousand Autumns, but by reading the books in this order, I already "knew" that the cult had actually discovered the secret to immortality, and were thus just as dangerous as they believed themselves to be. And, it was also interesting to try and use that knowledge to suss out exactly what was going on, particularly at the end. It seems pretty clear that the liquid provided by the Goddess was an equivalent to the Dark Wine decanted by the Blind Cathar, and thus presumably offers the same effect: prolonging the lives of those who drink it. If that's the case, then Enomoto is certainly old, and cannot be killed by age or illness, but would still be vulnerable to unnatural death (which would explain the extreme precautions he takes against poison). Why, then, at the end, does Enomoto seem to be convinced that his soul will survive death? That isn't what happens with the Anchorites: when they die, they stay dead. Perhaps this is a piece of cult belief that isn't actually true?

Or, maybe there's something else going on? While there are significant links between the Mount Shiranui Shrine and the Chapel of the Blind Cathar, they aren't identical; the difference that struck me most was Shiranui's reliance on infants, while the Chapel needs Potentials of any age. There's a brief mention in Thousand Autumns that, at a young age, a person's soul isn't tethered as tightly to their body, and thus can be more easily extracted. I wonder if this might be the same principle at play in the Chapel: we know that one of the abilities of the Horologists is the transmigration of souls, where one person's soul can travel to another's body; perhaps that means that their souls are also "loosely tethered", making them candidates.  Or, who knows, maybe something else about using infants makes the Shrine's practice fundamentally different from the Chapel's, and maybe this difference does enable Enomoto's ability to survive death.

The ending of the novel is really nice: not exactly an "everyone lived happily after," as there is a fair dose of melancholy and even Jacob's late marriage isn't depicted as especially loving, but still a happier ending than I was expecting. I was very struck, though, by the last couple of paragraphs, which describes Orito appearing unnoticed and kissing Jacob on his deathbed. It seems like a lyrical flourish, perhaps a depiction of the last few neurons firing in Jacob's brain, but given everything we know about the world from The Bone Clocks I am of course tuned to the possibility that she might actually be there. We spend time with Orito's point of view, and she certainly doesn't seem to be aware of any previous lives, so she is an unlikely (though not impossible) Horologist. A dark part of my mind worries that, when Enomoto died, he might have transmuted into Orito. I don't have any particular reason to think that this would be possible or likely, apart from its intrinsically sinister nature: we don't get any POV from Orito after she returns to the Shrine, though, so I'm currently not able to discount it either. Even if Enomoto did end up in her body, though, going to the Netherlands and kissing Jacob before he dies is probably very low on his bucket list.


In some ways, this might be the most conventional David Mitchell book I've read, which is to say that it's rather unusual for a David Mitchell book. He has a consistent moral voice, though, which makes it fit in well with his other novels even though it would probably be shelved differently from the remaining books. It was a great read on its own, and even better as another piece of the larger mosaic that Mitchell has been constructing during his career.

Finishing this when I did helped me feel better about reading these out of order: not that I would necessarily recommend reading them this way, but I got a lot more out of this book having read The Bone Clocks. Of course, reading them in the other order would have its own rewards as well. I have yet to re-read one of his books, but I already suspect that it will be a very rewarding experience. It's rare to encounter an author who arrives with such a fully-formed vision in mind that he completes across a range of books, instead of merely extending already-established mythology further in subsequent novels. Mitchell has a fantastic gift, and his books continue to be pleasures to read.

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