David Mitchell’s novel is a story of the forbidden: the forbidden love between a Japanese woman and a ‘white man’. Indeed, it is the story of forbidden fraternization with westerners. The novel is also the story of a religious man, a moral man, surrounded by corruption: nearly everyone is getting a piece of the pie, but our hero is above all that. The novel is a tale of a closed society resisting the forces of modernization and change: Japan in the years 1799-1800..
David Mitchell is one of a handful of writers that I look forward to with great expectations: Richard Powers, J.M. Coetzee…a few others, perhaps. The downside of this is, when one finishes a new one, there is sure to be a significant wait for the next. Then again, this allows me to discover new writers.
When young Jacob de Zoet makes his way to the small outpost of Dejima (Japan) in 1799, he arrives as a junior clerk with the Dutch East India Trading company. His mission is to uncover corruption by auditing the books. Not only does he find a country virtually closed to westerners (physically and culturally – a tiny bridge connects the small Dutch trading post, a man-made island, with Nagasaki), he is cut-off from nearly all of the inhabitants of Dejima as well. After all, he has come there to uncover fraud, double dealing and graft. There are few innocents amongst them. Jacob is one of the few., yet he is by no means naive. The bridge is, of course, symbolic of the separation and the possibility of coming together. That doesn’t happen in this novel, but you can feel barriers falling with a whisper.
The bridge at the time was the only tenuous connection between Europe and Japan. Japan preferred to be sealed off in order to avoid the corrupt influences of a diseased European culture. Young Jacob, hides away his family psaltery at great danger to himself, since all artifacts of European religions have been banned – even on Dejima. He is there also to gain his fortune – he has a would be fiance (Anna) back home from a wealthy family. He must make his own fortune to make a suitable match for her. But he becomes enamored of a young Japanese midwife who has been allowed to study with the brilliant company physician, Dr. Marinus. Jacob dreams of Anna, but thinks about the midwife, Orito Abigawa. He’s torn. Jacob makes several attempts to meet with Orito, a couple of which are very funny. In one, he agrees to a medical experiment/demonstration with Dr. Marinus for a brief moment with Orito. Later, while playing a game of billiards with Marinus, in which Jacob is soundly beating the doctor, they make another wager. If Marinus wins, Jacob will have to shovel manure in Marinus’ garden. If Jacob wins, as seems likely, he will get to spend more time with Orito. The chapter ends and the next one begins with Jacob shoveling manure. Snookered! An example of Mitchell’s writing style, and the humor which he employs throughout.
There’s a sub-plot, having to do with a mysterious Lord Abbot Enomoto, “of the Domain of Kyoga” – a remote mountaintop nunnery. Enomoto is powerful beyond his apparent influences, and later claims to be over 600-years old. Both Enomoto, Jacob and Ozawa Ugaemon are attracted to Orito. Ugaemon is an interpreter for the Dutch and Japanese officials, and he and Jacob discover similar interests – “affinities”. Both are drawn to Orito. Enomoto is drawn to her for different reasons.
Ugaemon is a book lover along with Jacob, and gets excited when he sees a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in Jacob’s trunk. Ugaemon dreams of bringing Japan in to the economic world of trade.
The subplot plays out and the novel concludes. The plot has been focused on about a year in the life of Jacob, the twists and turns of his mission and his hearts yearning. A fascinating tale. Then in a few brief pages – wonderful pages – Jacob’s last years are told. These last pages are some of the most lovely moments in the entire book, and leave the reader breathless – waiting for Mitchell’s next.
the wind musses the long fingered ash trees