“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”


I just finished reading the 2010 novel by David Mitchell. He is famous for writing the book that later was a movie, Cloud Atlas. In reading a bit about Mitchell, I didn’t know that he lived in Hiroshima for 9 years and is married to a Japanese woman. The work of historical fiction is set around the turn of the 18th century in the Nagasaki Bay. This was during the time that Japan was closed to the world and the only contact with the west for 200 years, was a small, artificial island trading post managed by Dutch traders. The story’s main character Jacob, is a young clerk who falls in love with a Japanese medical student. As with Cloud Atlas, there are several plot lines that come together in the end.

As with all good historical fiction, the book gave me a strong sense of what it was like back then. Mitchell writes in the final pages that “Obscurity is Japan’s outermost defense. The country does not want to be understood.” Japan was for over 200 years blocked to the rest of world and leaving the islands or visiting the islands was punishable by death. Mitchell is right in that during a time of colonialism, Japan was not taken over by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English or other maritime powers when neighboring nations fell. Mitchell’s years in Japan served him well for this book in that he understands Japanese culture intimately. It is a decent story and I enjoyed being taken away in the evenings before falling asleep. One takeaway from that period is how slow news travelled. The Dutch traders only learned of the bankruptcy of their company a year later and with news only coming with incoming ships, they were even more isolated that other places. Today with the internet, an information-rich environment and instant transmission of news, it is hard to think how it would be to live like that. I also liked that Mitchell told the whole story in a realistic manner and we get to see what happens to each character years later.

Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to visit the island which is now a museum and see the city where the second atomic bomb was dropped, ending World War II.

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