I usually read three or four books at a time. I like to have a nonfiction going, (and these tend to be long), and a literary fiction kind of work, and a lighter fast-reading mystery or some such. But recently I got myself entangled in three realllllly long books: Karl Popper’s The Open Society, an 800-page whopper, that because of it’s density of content, I am only getting through about 30 pages a day, and then I started with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is another doorstop, delightfully readable, but still….. so I thought I would toss in Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for a quick palate-cleansing read, little knowing that this thing is another 500-page beauty.
So I gave up on the “Thinking’ book for the nonce, because after all, thinking is hard work and who wants that?, and concentrated on Popper’s seminal work, to be leavened with this piece of fiction.
Mitchell is the author of the much-acclaimed Cloud Atlas, which I have on my Kindle and will get around to reading one of these days if I live long enough and my Kindle holds out, so I figured this book should be good. It was short-listed and long-listed for several literary awards. (See, not only do you get nifty points for actually WINNING these prizes and awards, you get points for being on the list of books to be considered for winning these prizes and awards. So the short list spawned a long list, and probably will birth a List Of Books That We Almost Thought About Considering, to be known as the Almost List).
This is an historical novel that is novel. (See what I did there?) because it is not a Regency romance illustrated with people wearing not enough clothes. This book is set in 1799 on an island off Nagasaki, (Dejima), Japan, and it features a group of Dutch international traders from the Dutch East India Company who are involved in an uneasy and precarious trade with the very insular Japanese, who allow no foreigners on their soil. You will recall that at this point in history… (No you won’t. Don’t lie to me. You don’t have a nanoclue as to what was going on in the world in 1799. But you don’t have to live in ignorance any longer. I will tell you.)
The VOC — that’s the Dutch East India Company — which was founded in 1602, had established a base on Jakarta and had been doing very well, but various factors, not the least of which was the corruption and mishandling of its personnel,were eating away at it’s well being until it finally went bankrupt in 1800.
More than 700 Dutch ships visited Japan between 1621 and 1847. Every year, the ships left their mother port of Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia) and, after anchoring in Nagasaki Harbor, the Dutch ships underwent an inspection of cargo and interrogation about point of departure, number of crew, and other matters. Two or three days later, the Dutch unloaded their cargo at Dejima and Nagasaki merchants gathered to engage in bidding.
The principal item imported by the Dutch was raw silk from Bengal and Tonkin, while the main export item was silver. From the middle of the Edo Period, the import items came to include printed cotton cloth, velvet, pepper, sugar, glass and books, and exports included copper, camphor, porcelain, lacquerware and other items.
The trade between Japan and the Netherlands began to decline in the 18th century. One of the reasons for this decline was Japan’s decision to limit foreign trade. Although there were no restrictions whatever at the beginning of the Edo Period, the Shogunate imposed a limit on trade volume in 1685, going on to limit the number of Dutch ships allowed entry into Nagasaki to two per year in 1715 and to only one per year in 1790. The trade volume was also reduced.
This trend was accompanied by a weakening of the management of the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century. The French Revolution of 1789 exerted a particularly grave effect on the company. In 1795, the revolution forces entered the Netherlands, occupying the country and bringing about the birth of the Republic of Batavia. In 1799, the Dutch East India Company was forced to disband. (Abandoning their belongings and leaving personnel stranded and with no pay in various remote parts of the world.)
OK, so that is the background to the story. The characters are Jacob de Zoet, a clerk who is set to the task of straightening out the accounting books from the last administration’s corruption, thievery, misappropriate of goods, and just plain mismanagement. He becomes a foil in the plans and conspiracies of the new management, and while there, meets Dr. Marinus, a guy in his fifties, insular, insulting, but learned. Dr. Marinus has as one of his medical students the VERY unusual situation of a woman midwife studying with the rest of the group. That she is permitted by the authorities and mores of the times to study medicine is a miracle in itself. Jacob inexplicable falls in infatuation with her, and thereby hangs the tale.
There is also a cast of thousands of Japanese officials, interpreters, nuns, wives and bit players. There is a multitude of Dutch personalities who are the temporary or not so temporary residents of Dejima, including indentured persons, slaves, and Japanese temporary ‘wives’ of some of the officers.
It is a huge story, but never feels sprawling or unmanageable, and the reader is never lost, although the story shifts back and forth between the Dutch issues on Dejima, and the Japanese issues of their own politics and mystical practices. The threads interweave, and the reader (that would be me) is compelled to turn the page again and yet again, to read just a little bit more.
For me, all that complicated historicism (could that possibly be the right word?) never feels complicated or beyond comprehension, because this book is probably the best example of ‘show don’t tell’ I have come across. It is all explained by way of the actions and thoughts of the characters; there is no info dump, there are no long passages of exposition. It’s just pure story, and we close the book coming away with a fairly good idea of the history of that little slice of time and geography, and an affection for the people who populated our story.
Go read it. You will love it. And if you don’t love it, don’t tell me. Leave me to my illusions.