2010 Booker Prize

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors, so I was very excited about the release of this new book. Unfortunately I think that David Mitchell has matured as an author very quickly and so this book will disappoint much of his broad fan base.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set on the island of Dejima at the beginning of the 19th Century. Dejima is the Japanese trading post, the only place where Europeans are allowed to exchange goods with the Japanese. The small island is inhabited only by translators, prostitutes and traders; with access to mainland Japan over a small fiercely guarded bridge. To Buying or reselling authorized user trade Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk trying to prevent corruption on the island, but his life is changed when he falls in love with Orito, a young midwife.

The first chapter is a gripping, but graphic account of a childbirth in which Orito breathes the life back into a seemingly dead baby. Unfortunately the next 150 pages of the book lack this vivid story telling and I found it very hard to understand what was happening. New characters seemed to be added on every page, their names changing based on who referred to them.  The added problem of the Dutch and Japanese misunderstanding each other only compounded my confusion.

As a piece of historical fiction this book is a masterpiece. It is very well researched, but at times I felt the accuracy was its downfall. It took me six weeks to read the first section as I had to re-read it several times. If I hadn’t been a massive David Mitchell fan then I admit that I might have given up at this point, but I am pleased I made the effort.

The next 200 pages were a big improvement. The story of Orito’s imprisonment in a monastery and the shocking baby farm that existed there was a satisfying read. I loved Orito and wish the whole book had concentrated on her.

I was quite disappointed by the ending, but I’m afraid I can’t let you know about that without giving things away. All I can say is that I wasn’t a big fan of any section including Jacob de Zoet. The complexity of the text meant that  I couldn’t generate an emotional response and so I didn’t connect with him. I found all his sections confusing and almost impossible to follow with a single reading.

Overall this is an impressive book which deserves to win the Booker prize, but I think the complexity will put off all but the most determined reader.

Are you a big David Mitchell fan?

Do you hope this wins the Booker prize?


49 replies on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell”

Wow, I haven’t read anything by David Mitchell but I will certainly avoid this one. If I saw it at a bookstore, from reading the blurb I would probably pick it up… but it sounds like a huge struggle to read, and the book itself doesn’t sound interesting at all after reading your review.

Amy, I highly recommend that you try David Mitchell. I don’t recommend starting with this one, but I’m sure once you’ve read all his others you’ll want to try this anyway!

Amy, That really depends on what type of book you enjoy. If you were born in England in the 1970s or 80s and like more conventional narratives then you will love the reminiscing of Black Swan Green, although even if that isn’t the case then I’m sure you’ll love it.

Cloud Atlas is another great place to start, but some people object to the mulitple narratives/locations.

I think you’ll enjoy whichever book you pick – I look forward to hearing about your first David Mitchell experience.

What a shame that this was a bit disappointing for you, even though you gave it 4*s – I know you’d been looking forward to it. Mitchell seems to be doing a lot of author events so maybe you’ll get to one to be able to discuss it with him.

Verity, It is hard to say whether this was a disappointment. I did enjoy reading it and am impressed by the skill of his writing, but sometimes I think less is more. I can’t decide whether I want to discuss it with him or not. I’m too scared I’d just be a grovelling fan to say anything constructive!

I’m sorry to hear that this book was such a disappointment to you, I know you were really looking forward to reading it. To be honest, your enthusiasm about the author, plus the genral enthusiasm about the release of this book, might’ve made me pick this book up instantly. Now I guess I have to start out with a different David Mitchell book.

Claire, I love complex stories, but this doesn’t have a complex plot – it is just the every day life that is difficult to follow. The number of characters, the Japanese traditions, the vocabulary etc. I will be interested to see what you make of it, but I still recommend you start with Black Swan Green.

I’m surprised you gave this four stars, when it really doesn’t sound like you enjoyed it much! Though I guess that goes back to the question I am always pondering of how much stock to put in my own subjective opinions versus, say, the opinions of smarter and better-read people than I am, like book prize committees.

Jenny, I think that is one of the reason I like to see a star rating at the bottom of a post. I find it really hard to know how much someone enjoyed a book from the text (and I’m obviously doing a bad job at getting my message across too!) Some aspects of this book were genius, but a lot of it was too clever for me – the kind of book you need to study to understand. I think the enjoyment of this book will depends on how smart/well read you are, but I’d have thought you were just as smart and hopefully equally as well read as those judges. I think that the best books are effortless reads though. I appreciate the skill required to write something like this, but books that make me re-read again and again feel more like homework than pleasure for me.

I was also a bit surprised to see you make the comment about this being Booker-prize worthy, when it seems like you had only lukewarm feelings about it.

Does this have anything to do with your expectations of David Mitchell? (your high expectations make it impossible not to compare this with his other work, even if you still do believe that it’s a great book?)

Lija, I think that the more complex a book the more interesting it will be after several readings. I don’t enjoy re-reading or studying books, but the prize judges will re-read a book multiple times. I can see that this book has lots of layers and gets more enjoyable with each reading, but I like books to be understandable on a first reading. The complexity and depth of this book mean that it deserves to win the Booker and deserves to be studied, but I prefer his simpler ones.

4 stars is quite a good rating from me. I did enjoy it, but prefer his others.

EEKS! Really? I finished The 1000 Autumns on Sunday and loved it from cover to cover… Does our cultural background have anything to do with that? I’m Dutch, you see 😉 (Of course Mitchell isn’t)

I found it a very satisfying read, several times as vivid as the first chapter. And the end was quite as I expected Mitchell to end a book as well… Have we really been reading the same novel? 😮

It might help that I have read about ancient Japan and Dejima before.

I’m really sorry that you didn’t like Mitchell’s latest as much as I did!

Gnoe, I’m really pleased that you enjoyed it. Your Dutch knowledge and reading about Dejima and ancient Japan may well have contributed to your added love of this book. I know no Dutch and my knowledge of ancient Japan is patchy. I feel I know a lot more now though! Perhaps it is just my terrible ability to remember multiple characters that puts me at a disadvantage?

I guess the ending was very Mitchell, but I was hoping to be feeling some emotion over it and it left me cold. I look forward to seeing your review.

I haven’t made it through anything by David Mitchell before – I tried to read Cloud Atlas for my bookclub, and I couldn’t make it through the first section! I really thought that first part was overwritten, and it felt like the author had written it with a thesaurus in hand!

I would like to try Mitchell again, maybe even attempt Cloud Atlas again, but I certainly won’t be starting with this one!

Steph, It has been a few years since I read Cloud Atlas, but I can’t remember needing a dictionary. I might have to go and re-read it to see if I get what you mean!

I suggest you try Black Swan Green – a much easier read!

As you know, I have loved every book I’ve read by this author – but I must say, I am a little nervous about this one after reading your review! Despite my trepidations, I will most likely pick up this novel at some point just because I can’t resist anything by Mitchell! Thanks for the honest review, Jackie 🙂

Wendy, I will be really interested to see your thoughts on this one. I know we both love David Mitchell as much as each other so I know your expectations will be just as high as mine.

I’m really looking forward to reading this one after I finish Black Swan Green as I’m also a huge fan of Mitchell’s. I have seen quite a few mixed reviews on the web. Do you think it’s because it’s a ‘straight’ historical fiction novel as opposed to his earlier novels?

I know you have been raving about Mitchell forever, and I do wish him the best with this book. But if it wins the Booker, there is a good chance that with the publicity I might read it, probably not like it (based on your reaction) then doubt myself again for being an Award idiot! I really love it when a prize winner is actually an accessible, understandable, lovable book!

Snady, I do believe that the best books are accessible to all. Books like Disgrace are so fantastic because they are easy to read, yet can be enjoyed on a deeper level too. I’ll be interested to see what you make of this one if you decide to go for it.

I doubt I am determined enough at the moment to give this one a try. Maybe in a few years when life is a bit more settled (wishful thinking) I will give it a try. I know there is something there worth reading based on your review and the fact that it won the Booker.

Crap, I am not a determined reader at all!

I like Mitchell – loved Black Swan Green and was impressed by Cloud Atlas. I still want to read the other earlier books, but I can tell I won’t like this one as I can be easily confused, as seen by my recent reading of The Rehearsal.

Yikes, I must admit I am not always that determined of a reader. There are so many books that I want to read in my lifetime that I rarely go past 100 pages if a book isn’t doing something for me. That said, I will be giving this book a chance as I received a review copy of it.

I completely agree with you about the 150 pages where the story sort of drifts.

And you’re right about the name changing. It took me about 100 pages for the penny to drop on that one.

But the book is worth persevering with.

I quite like de Zoet as a character because he’s a good study of a person trying to do the right thing while everyone around him is as corrupt as hell. Doing business in parts of Asia can still be a bit like that – even today.

It’s also reading up about the Nagasaki incident – a true life historical event of some importance which is reflected in the book. And it’s also worth finding out about Hendrik Doeff – who is highly relevant to the book: I’ll say no more though…

Mark, Thanks for commenting on my blog for the first time 🙂 I agree that this book is worth persevering with. It does have a few flaws, but a lot to recommend it too. I would like to do more research around this period of history – there is so much I don’t know. I didn’t realise Hendrik Doeff was so interesting – I’ll keep an eye out for more information about him.

Hi Jackie

Some info (edited from Wikipedia and other places) – we’ve got our book club discussion on 1000 autumns tonight.

Nagasaki Harbour Incident
Captain Fleetwood Pellew commanding Terpsichore against Dutch vessels in Batavia Roads, 24 November 1806. Drawn at Madras, May 1807

After the French had conquered the Batavian Republic and Napoleon begun to use its resources against England, Royal Navy ships started to prey on Dutch shipping. In 1808, Phaeton, by now under the command of Captain Fleetwood Pellew, entered Nagasaki’s harbour to ambush a couple of Dutch trading ships that were expected to arrive shortly.

Phaeton entered the harbour on 4 October under a Dutch flag. As was the custom, Dutch representatives from the Nagasaki trading enclave of Dejima rowed out to welcome the visiting ship, but as they approached, Phaeton lowered a tender to capture the Dutch representatives. The Phaeton demanded that supplies (water, food, fuel) be delivered to her in exchange for the release of the Dutch employees. The Phaeton also fired cannons and muskets to press her demands, and threatened to destroy the Japanese and Chinese ships in the harbour.

The meager Japanese forces in Nagasaki were unable to intervene. At the time, it was the Saga clan’s turn to uphold the policy of Sakoku and to protect Nagasaki, but they had economized by stationing only 100 troops there, instead of the 1,000 officially required for the station. The Nagasaki Magistrate, Matsudaira Genpei, immediately ordered troops from the neighbouring areas of Kyūshū island. The Japanese mobilized a force of 8,000 samurai and 40 ships to confront the Phaeton, but they could not arrive for a few days. In the meantime, the Nagasaki Magistrate decided to respond to the ship’s demands, and provided supplies.

The Phaeton left two days later on 7 October, before the arrival of Japanese reinforcements, and after she had learned that the Dutch trading ships would not be coming that year. She also left a letter for the Dutch director Hendrik Doeff. The Nagasaki Magistrate, Matsudaira, took responsibility by committing suicide by seppuku.

Following the attack of the Phaeton, the Bakufu reinforced coastal defenses, and promulgated a law prohibiting foreigners coming ashore, on pain of death (1825–1842, Muninen-uchikowashi-rei). The Bakufu also requested that official interpreters learn English and Russian, departing from their prior focus on Dutch studies. In 1814, the first English-Japanese dictionary (6,000 words) was written by the Dutch interpreter Motoki Shozaemon.

Hendrik Doeff

(2 December 1764 – 19 October 1837) was the Dutch commissioner in the Dejima trading post in Nagasaki, during the first years of the 19th century.

Doeff was born in Amsterdam and sailed to Japan as a scribe for the Dutch East India Company. He became chief of the Dejima post in 1803 until 1817.
After Britain captured the Dutch colony in Indonesia in 1811, Dejima became the only place on Earth flying the Dutch flag. Hendrik Doeff steadfastly refused all attempts by Britain to take over the Dejima post. The Netherlands was restored in 1815 and Doeff was later decorated for his loyalty and courage.

Doeff wrote a Dutch-Japanese Dictionary, a memoir of his experiences in Japan titled Recollections of Japan, and is remembered for his strong activity in maintaining Dutch trade monopoly in Japan. He is the first westerner known to have written haiku, two of which have been found in Japanese publications from the period of his stay in Japan.[1][2] One of his

lend me your arms,

fast as thunderbolts,

for a pillow on my journey

Sakoku policy

For two hundred years, Dutch merchants were generally not allowed to cross from Dejima to Nagasaki, and Japanese were likewise banned from entering Dejima, except for prostitutes from Nagasaki teahouses. These yūjo were handpicked from 1642 by the Japanese, often against their will. Starting in the 18th century, Dejima became known throughout Japan as a center of medicine, military science, and astronomy, and many samurai travelled there for “Dutch studies” (Rangaku).

In addition, the Opperhoofd was treated like a Japanese daimyo, which meant that he had to pay a visit of homage to the Shogun in Edo regularly (the so-called sankin kotai). In contrast to a daimyo, the Dutch delegation traveled to Edo yearly between 1660 and 1790 and once every four years thereafter. This prerogative was denied to the Chinese traders. This lengthy travel to the imperial court broke the boredom of their stay, but it was a costly affair to the Dutch. The shōgun let them know in advance and in detail which (expensive) gifts he expected, such as astrolabes, a pair of glasses, telescopes, globes, medical instruments, medical books, or exotic animals and tropical birds. In return, the Dutch delegation received some gifts from the shogun. On arrival in Edo the Opperhoofd and his retinue (usually his scribe and the factory doctor) had to wait in the Nagasakiya, their mandatory residence until they were summoned at the court. After their official audience, they were expected, according to Engelbert Kaempfer, to perform Dutch dances and songs etc. for the amusement of the shogunate. But they also used the opportunity of their stay of about two to three weeks in the capital to exchange knowledge with learned Japanese and, under escort, visit the town.

New introductions to Japan
a.. Badminton,
b.. Billiards
c.. Beer The Dutch governor Doeff made his own beer in Nagasaki, following the disruption of trade during the Napoleonic wars.
d.. Clover was introduced in Japan by the Dutch as packing material for fragile cargo. The Japanese called it “White packing herb”
e.. Coffee .
f.. Piano. .
g.. Paint, used for ships,
h.. Cabbage and tomatoes .
i.. Chocolate

Mark, Wow! Thank you for all the information. That must have been a lot of research. I especially love the list of new introductions to Japan – I had no idea they used clover as a packaging material.

I hope you have a wonderful discussion at your book group tonight. 🙂

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