A new book, a new genre—just what you'd expect from David Mitchell. Since 1999, this wunderkind of British fiction has produced a globe-spanning chain of nine semifuturistic narratives (Ghostwritten), a coming-of-age thriller set in contemporary Tokyo (Number9Dream), a Chinese box of nested tales that take us from the nineteenth century to about the twenty-third (Cloud Atlas), and a portrait of the artist as a very young Englishman (Black Swan Green). And now for something completely different—a historical novel. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with its stately, melancholy title, is not only, for Mitchell, a new form, it is also a new mood: wistful, delicate, even, well, autumnal. The wunderkind—forty-one by now—is ripening, it seems, into a middle period of subtler effects and sustained emotions.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set in and around the artificial island of Dejima, the tiny trading post in Nagasaki harbor created in the seventeenth century by the insular Tokugawa shogunate. Dejima was virtually Japan's single window on the outside world—certainly, its single link to the West. Only the Dutch were given trading rights (the Chinese had their own post in the same harbor), and traffic between natives and foreigners was highly regulated and formalized. The title character—young, pious, principled, shrewd—arrives in this world of petty intrigue, endemic corruption, ubiquitous surveillance, illegible signs, and cultural paranoia in the summer of 1799 as clerk to Dejima's new chief. A new century is at hand. France is whetting its knives at Holland, Britain is ingesting the nation's colonies, and the Dutch East Indies Company is lurching toward collapse. Meanwhile, Enlightenment ideas are seeping through the global trade routes, troubling Japan in its xenophobic stasis.
As Jacob gets oriented, the first section unfolds in a shuffle of characters and plotlines. Jacob's patron has come, ostensibly, to clean house, setting off a flutter of anxiety among Dejima's dozen or so Europeans (the place is not so much hothouse as henhouse). One figure stands aloof from the scrum, the gruff, incisive Dr. Marinus, a man of science and culture who enjoys special access to the Japanese. A crowd of natives, wrapped around the Europeans like a cordon sanitaire, fills out the cast: guards, inspectors, porters, spies, and, most prestigious, interpreters. One of the last, Ogawa, more enlightened than the others, becomes the hero's particular friend. Once Jacob is allowed the privilege of crossing into Nagasaki proper, still other Japanese enter the story: the local magistrate, his chamberlain, and a mysterious and powerful nobleman named Enomoto. And then, inevitably, there is the love interest: Orito, a young woman of intellect and sensibility who's been allowed to join the doctor's group of Japanese apprentices and on whom the hero develops a life-altering crush.
All this is deftly managed, as one would expect from a writer of Mitchell's narrative skills. Yet an odor of artificiality clings to the story. The ironies are overbroad, the plot movements formal and stiff, the characters—virtuous hero, modest damsel, sinister lord, stern sage—frequently stock. The diction is, at times, ostentatiously dated: "Our warehouses were burning to cinders whilst you, sir, romped with strumpets in a brothel!—a fact omitted from that farrago of lies you are pleased to call your Day Register."
Given Mitchell's virtuosic command of genre in 2004's Cloud Atlas—a different note-perfect one for each of its half-dozen sections—there is zero possibility this was unintentional. So what's the point? Not, it seems, to foreground the issue of form, make us aware of the novel's constructedness and thus of our distance from (indeed, the fictionality of) its historical scene, for the effect is carried through inconsistently and largely disappears after the first section. The artifice seems intended, rather, as a half apology. The genres of Cloud Atlas are presented as genres, each framed as a literary artifact. Here, there is no frame—Mitchell is going to hammer together a shipshape historical fiction (itself a watertight simulacrum of history) and sail away with our suspended disbelief securely in its hold—and he seems to feel a little guilty about the transaction.
But once we're past the opening movement, the narrative speeds as only Mitchell can hasten it. The second section shifts to land, an intrigue unfolding among the Japanese principals, Orito, Ogawa, and Enomoto: a story of enslavement, adventure, blood rites, and resistance—gothic novel crossed with samurai tale. The third shifts the scene again, to a British frigate come to seize the trading post in the wake of the Dutch Republic's collapse. As the narrative units accumulate, Mitchell's larger designs emerge. Three sections, embodying three national perspectives. Three plots carried across the book: Jacob and Orito; Orito, Ogawa, and Enomoto; and the larger political struggle—at once commercial, cultural, and geostrategic—that frames the whole. A welter of narrative elements in the first section, a counterpoint of converging plotlines in the second, a headlong rush of action in the third. Parallel characters and analogous dilemmas in trading post, city, and ship; readerly sympathies balanced and set at odds. In short, the plenitude, pace, and scope of classic historical fiction.
The novel never does give up its genre trappings. Mitchell's power as a storyteller lies precisely in his willingness to embrace generic devices and other conventions: allies, reversals, turncoats, showdowns, enemies, mysteries, and suspense. What lifts his work above the level of popular fiction, aside from his astounding verbal gifts, is his ability to take those elements and individuate them, make his scenes and characters convincingly specific, vessels of feeling and meaning and not just engines of plot. Orito is the modest damsel we recognize from a thousand tales, but she is also a differentiated and particularized fictional character.
Nor does Mitchell achieve this specificity only through period detail—the overstuffed baggage, laboriously trundled, of the usual run of historical fiction. Instead, he brings it into being by means of the true novelist's gifts of observation and imaginative sympathy. The climactic confrontation, warship against trading post, is about to commence:
Let's pit your Dutch courage, Penhaligon thinks, against English munitions.
Waldron's torso appears above the hatch. "Ready for your word, Captain."
The Oriental rain is fine as lace on the sailors' leathern faces.
"Give it to them, Mr. Waldron, straight in the teeth . . ."
"Aye, sir." Waldron announces the order below: "Starboard crews, fire!"
Major Cutlip, at his side, hums, "Three blind mice, three blind mice . . ."
Out of the gun-ports, over the bulwarks, fly the flintmen's cries of Clear!
The Captain watches the Dutchmen staring down the mouths of his guns.
Lapwings fly over stone water: their wingtips kiss, drip and ripple.
The snap of military procedure, the tilt of idiosyncrasy, a caesura of decision: The moment acquires volume and, in the last sentence, the kind of descriptive filigree, a one-line nature poem that seems intended as a version of haiku, that graces the novel throughout.
The younger Mitchell flaunted his moves; here, he hides them in plain sight. The same may be said of the novel's thematic intentions. Love, honor, courage, fate: These color the novel's surface, but other questions move beneath. Mitchell has a brilliant imagination for speech and, in particular, for speeches: soliloquies where characters, often glimpsed only once, reveal themselves in story—the truck driver in 2001's Number9Dream ("Now, for Kirara, I was just a dish of peanuts to nibble with her entree"), the prizefighter's son in 2006's Black Swan Green ("Bits was hangin' off Dad, there was"). In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet—Mitchell's only novel that is not itself a speech, not in the first person—he makes the device a theme unto itself, pausing the narrative at least a score of times (they are the novel's strongest passages) to let a character stand forth and tell his tale.
"So I run away from Pa, afore he did rip out my liver"; "My father was a tobacco hawker, and gambler . . . and one night the cards went badly and he sold me to a tanner"; "Letters they taught us at the orphanage, an' arithmetic, an' Scripture"; "I was passed like a bad penning down a chain of relatives"; "One icy St. Martin's Day, a block of stone slipped from its harness and crushe my da like a beetle." As the examples suggest, these narratives are almost always tales of orphanhood: children, usually sons, bereaved of parents, usually fathers, by disease or necessity or sheer bad luck—sold, stolen, exposed, abandoned. (Nor is this a new motif for Mitchell: In Number9Dream, the protagonist searches for his father; in Black Swan Green, he slowly loses him.) All the novel's major characters are orphans, and so are most of its minor ones.
This is not a story of parentless children clubbing together to fashion families of their own. It is one of survivors, thrown out into the wider world of global commerce or feudal Japan, to shift on their own, using whatever reserves of guts or ingenuity they're lucky enough to have—a reason for the melancholy mood. Penhaligon, the British captain, who himself has lost a son—and who commands a vessel named for Phoebus, a figure similarly bereaved—glances at a member of his crew, a half-caste boy. His face, he thinks, "speaks of fatherlessness, name-calling and resilience." Finally, with the disappearance of the Dutch Republic, Dejima itself is orphaned, a loneliness that comes to rest on the figure of Jacob himself.
Fathers and sons are past and future, another central concern. The main action begins in 1799 and ends in 1800, and there is much talk, among the Europeans, of dragging Japan into the new century. Most of Mitchell's novels brood on history, and most of them lean, one way or another, into the future. Again and again, he asks us to think about the way we got here, and the places we might have gone instead, and the ones we may be heading to next. If Cloud Atlas gave us a couple of centuries in either direction from the present, this book compresses the scheme into the span of little more than a year. The previous decades of peace, stasis, and isolation are much on the characters' minds, as are the changes being pressed on the islands, and every other part of the world, by Western science. Dr. Marinus delivers a lecture on the latter to the Shirandô Academy in Nagasaki, after which he's asked a question by an erudite (and dying) young scholar: "When the doctor's imagined Sleeper awakens in the year 1899, shall the world most closely resemble Paradise or the Inferno?" The doctor doesn't know, but on nearly every page we read an answer hidden in the setting's very name, and we may reflect on the fact that Mitchell's own first years in Japan, during his late twenties and early thirties, were spent in Hiroshima.
If the present novel is Cloud Atlas compressed in time, it is also Ghostwritten (1999) contracted in space, spanning the world by staying put. Dutch, Irish, Prussians, Americans, Malays, and, of course, Japanese—like any port, Dejima is both a congress of cultures and a point of transition. It has a Land-Gate at one end and a Sea-Gate at the other, and goods—bearers of culture—move from one to the other, as time moves from past to future through the present. Europe on one side, Japan on the other, a tiny island in between. Mitchell's imagination has always run to islands, figures of isolation—Okinawa in Ghostwritten, Yakushima in Number9Dream, Hawaii in Cloud Atlas—but also to bridges, like Dejima's Land-Gate and many others here, emblems of connection. Japan (like Britain) is also an island (or many of them), and the novel's overriding question is how much, when, and on whose terms it will allow itself to be connected to the West.
That's where Dr. Marinus comes in. Science is a product of Western culture, but it stands outside culture. Its insights are the same in every place and language. Mitchell may be telling a story of love and commerce and war, but he is also telling one of science in its early days—of the romance of the Enlightenment, of the wonder of a world newly discovered by reason—and, in particular, of medicine. Amid a world of illness and death, of cholera and fever and bone disease, and of the useless traditional remedies of both cultures ("'Pus,' Surgeon Nash unscrews a corked pot, 'is how the body purges itself of excessive blue bile'"), Mitchell gives us anatomy, surgery, microscopy, and above all—Orito is a midwife—obstetrics. The novel opens with a birth, a Japanese boy (that is, a son) rescued from death by Western learning—science reaching across the cultural divide to deliver the new. Not Paradise or the Inferno, but both.
The novel also ends with a death—Jacob's, as he foresees his own in distant prospect, a tale he tells himself. Stories, too, are bridges—to the past, to other cultures, and, here, to the future. Mitchell, always cognizant of temporality's forward thrust, has never been comfortable with endings. Two of his novels circle back to where they started; the final phrase of Black Swan Green is "it's not the end." But autumn, which is right in the title here ("The Land of a Thousand Autumns," it turns out, is a traditional name for Japan), is the season of endings. In keeping with the novel's overall approach, Mitchell is willing, for once, to fulfill our conventional expectations. By showing Jacob's need to imagine the end, he satisfies our own.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is not Mitchell's best novel—I'd rate it no better than third, after Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas—but what marks it as the work of a maturer man is the quality of its patience. For all their glories, Mitchell's first three novels, each essentially a series of miniatures and all of them marked by almost constant action, were incapable of sitting still. In Black Swan Green, he started to slow down and take the measure of a single life—though that life, and the language in which it expressed itself, still possessed the jerky rhythms of adolescence. In Jacob, Mitchell has created an adult, and he gives him the time to taste the feelings of one: self-possession, resignation, moral courage, regret. The younger Mitchell was an experimentalist, and he never let us forget it, but here he's willing to stay in the background and let his protagonist have the spotlight to himself. And that may be the most interesting experiment of all.
William Deresiewicz is the author of Everything I Know About Life I Learned by Reading Jane Austen, to be published next year by Penguin Press.