Tuesday, May 14, 2013

David Mitchell

David Mitchell may be famous these days as author of Cloud Atlas, the expensive Hollywood spectacle released last year. I thought Cloud Atlas (the book) was a fine piece of fiction. Good enough for me to go on to read his latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Cloud Atlas is composed of 6 very loosely interlocking stories set between the 19th century and some point in the Star Trekish future. Each story gets some 50 pages devoted to it, is then abruptly cut off and the next story is taken up. Once this is finished we cycle back in much the same format and the stories are concluded. It's an ambitious work and Mitchell is able to pull it off. There is a convincing feel for setting, detail, character and dialogue. It was much more absorbing than the disappointing movie version - television pacing, attention deficit disorder editing, full of explosions and car chases.

While Cloud Atlas was half historical fiction and half science fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is wholly historical. It's set entirely in and around Nagasaki, Japan about the year 1800, when the Dutch maintained a trading post there, and the aristocracy of Japan were beginning to question the old regime and push for modernization. The hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a young clerk sent by the Dutch East India Company to Dejima. He spends several decades there, becoming entwined in various intrigues. Again, Mitchell shows great ability in depicting the times and place. I'm not a fan of historical fiction, but it is clear that Mitchell has done his homework. I lived in Edo Machi, Nagasaki, just across the river from the one time artificial island, Dejima, which during the period of the novel was Japan's sole outlet to the larger world. I know the town and history well, and Mitchell has done them justice.

I'm not sure that I'll be looking forward to Mitchell's next work. but what I read of his did stand out among the dozens of other novels I looked at as polished and compelling pieces of fiction. It may not last, but it will do for now. Here's a short excerpt from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:

There is a wide square of sand and grit, deserted but for a few soldiers. This plaza is named, van Cleef told him, Edo Square to remind the independent Nagasaki populace where the true power lies. On one side is the Shogunal Keep: ramped stones, high walls and steps. Through another set of gates, the retinue is submersed in a shaded thoroughfare. Hawkers cry, beggars implore, tinkers clang pans, ten thousand wooden clogs knock against flagstones. Their own guards yell, ordering the townspeople aside. Jacob tries to capture every fleeting impression for letters to Anna, and to his sister, Geertje, and his uncle. Through the palanquin's grille, he smalls steamed rice, sewage, incense, lemons, sawdust, yeast and rotting seaweed. He glimpses gnarled old women, pocked monks, married girls with blackened teeth. Would that I had a sketchbook, the foreigner thinks, and three days ashore to fill it. Children on a mud wall make owl-eyes with their forefingers and thumbs, chanting 'Oranda-me, Oranda-me, Oranda-me': Jacob realizes they are impersonating 'round' European eyes and remembers a string of urchins following a Chinaman in London. The urchins pulled their eyes into narrow slants and sang, 'Chinese, Siamese, if you please, Japanese.'

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