On April 2, 1595, three merchant ships set sail from Holland for “the East”, together with the small ship the Duyfken. It proved to be an exciting adventure. Only three of the four vessels returned in August 1597 and only 87 of the 249 man crew. The revenues were modest. But still, this first Dutch sailing expedition to Asia was a success because it opened a trade route to the East.
Other expeditions followed. With their strong and heavily armed trading vessels the merchant traders from Zeeland and Holland out-performed the Portuguese who had used the route for some time, and the English became jealous. The ships returned heavily laden with colonial goods like pepper and nutmeg. To limit internal competition, Johan van Oldenbarneveldt took the initiative of setting up the Dutch East India Company (VOC). On 20 March 1602 the company acquired the Dutch monopoly on all trade in Asian waters from the Cape of Good Hope onwards. The company was empowered to sign treaties in the name of the Republic, to wage war and administer conquered territories.
The VOC developed into a power to be feared. It conquered the town of Jayakarta and founded Batavia there. Parts of Java were occupied, Ambon and Ternate in the Molluccas were subjugated and the population was forced to cultivate spices. Elsewhere in Asia too the VOC gained ground with either persuasion or violence. Forts were built in South Africa, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Makassar in Indonesia. China was visited and when in 1641 the Shogun of Japan closed his country’s borders to foreigners, the VOC alone received his permission to continue to trade from the island of Decima near Nagasaki.
In this way, the VOC not only stocked Dutch warehouses with colonial goods and filled the houses of the bourgeois with curiosa from foreign lands, but they also played an important trading role within Asia. Textiles, spices, coffee, tea, tobacco, opium, tropical wood, iron, copper, silver, gold, porcelain, dyes, shells – an endless array of goods was transported by the Dutch East India fleet.
In 1799, the VOC was dissolved.
It is against this backdrop that David Mitchell’s stunning upcoming novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is set. de Zoet is engaged as assistant clerk for the VOC on the island of Decima. He is charged with cleaning up corruption but is soon clear he is walking into a moral quagmire. At a time when all relations between the Japanese and Dutch are controlled and monitored, down to the tiniest detail, his attention is caught by the imperfect beauty of a Japanese midwife who is studying with a Dutch doctor. While de Zoet is compromised on all fronts, both the Dutch India Company and the Shogunate itself stand on the knife edge of disaster.
Two months out from its publication, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is garnering outstanding reviews for its imaginative storytelling and beautiful writing. I’m about half way through at the moment and I can tell you that having been in no-man’s land for reading for a couple of weeks, this novel has held me in its iron grip since I first opened its pages. Most other things in my world are getting neglected as I return again and again to the Decima of 1799 . In some respects it reminds me of Amitav Ghosh’s marvellous Sea of Poppies where history is writ large (in that case the subversion of the Indian economy to opium by the British, in order to exact favourable trading conditions with the Chinese) with disastrous effects played out upon the populations of very ordinary people (where Indian opium factory workers get displaced to work as coolies on sugar plantations in Mauritius). Both novels display a tour de force of writing style, both counterpoint Europe and the East with stunning originality, both manage to change between narrators seamlessly, both use very authentic vernacular without sacrificing accessibility for the contemporary reader.
David Mitchell is well used to praise. Ghostwritten won the prize for the best British author under 35 and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. He has had two short listings for the Man Booker – for number9dream and Cloud Atlas. He was nominated Granta Magazine’s Best Young British Novelist in 2003 and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2007.
So how does the boy from Merseyside write Japan with such authenticity? Of course, he has had a crack at it before, with number9dream and Ghostwritten but Mitchell spent eight years there as a translator of sorts (perhaps reminiscent of one of his characters in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet who is a cultural gatekeeper to the Dutch), before another period of time there, returning this time with a Japanese wife, Keiko. Quite how he imagines up the points of view of a variety of eighteenth century rogues is something else again.
To finish, a couple of excerpts from the many reviews floating around in the ether. They are spruiking the US edition of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet . Don’t be tempted to buy that version. It is more expensive, and a month behind the Australian edition, whose jacket I have to say is absolutely beautiful.
From “Booknerd”, an independent bookseller in Brooklyn.
The works of art that stay with us are usually not the ones that we love easily on first experiencing them. Rather, they tend to be the ones that grow on us, that we find ourselves thinking about and wrestling with and returning to. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is that second kind. It seems to have made its own distinctive ache in my heart — for the heartbreaks of the story, and its beauties, and its delights that I will never experience for the first time again. In this way it does seem very Japanese: infused with an appreciation of the ephemeral that is as much about the nostalgia as about the event — an autumnal beauty, in fact.
From Seth Marko, likewise in San Diego
From I was extremely lucky – by pestering my RH sales rep – to have been able to read the manuscript of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” several month in advance of the release.) While The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet does not have the complex, head-exploding machinations of some of Mitchell’s past work (Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas esp.) it does prove that Mitchell has been no fluke – his burgeoning talent has hit full stride at this point and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet showcases his immense ability to write in any genre he chooses and blow your socks off in the process. There are multiple narrators throughout, as is Mitchell’s wont, but it is structurally done in such a subtle way that you hardly notice – you are just swept along in the flow, wondering, as a foreigner like Jacob, how much of the lush, inner world of Japan you will be allowed to glimpse. My god, if this book isn’t the one that earns him that elusive Booker prize…