Wednesday, August 03, 2011

'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell

3 August 2011

In my previous job, when I was commuting to London every day, I managed to consume massive amounts of contemporary literature, often reading a novel a week. Now that the train has become my office, I find it hard to find time to read for pleasure. Regular readers may have noticed that my book reviews often tend to coincide with my holidays. I have therefore been amassing an ever-expanding list of books I am intending to read, with little prospect of making serious in-roads into it. I do, however, manage to find plenty of time to listen to music and radio programmes, usually on headphones while doing something else. So I thought I would see whether unabridged audio books might provide the answer to reducing my ‘to-read’ mountain. I signed up to the subscription service and I have just finished listening to my first audio book, David Mitchell’s ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’. David Mitchell is one of my favourite contemporary novelists and I had been looking forward to his latest work. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ is an epic work – the audio version, wonderfully read by Jonathan Aris, lasts 19 hours. Structurally, it is much more straightforward than David Mitchell’s earlier novels, ‘Cloud Atlas’, ‘Ghostwritten’ and ‘number9dream’. This is an old-fashioned historical saga on a grand scale. Set in a Dutch trading post outside Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century it tells the tale of a young Dutch clerk, Jacob de Zoet, arriving at this grim colonial outpost and beginning to learn the mysteries of the closed Japanese empire. Had I been reading the book in print I wonder whether I might have struggled to get into it – I suspect I would have carefully re-read the opening chapters to get to grips with all the Japanese and Dutch names and work out exactly who all the characters were. Listening to the audio version allowed me not to worry about pronunciation (all done for me!) and letting the huge cast of characters initially wash over me worked fine: you soon begin to differentiate the main protagonists without having to work too hard. David Mitchell manages to draw very clear characters – all of whom have believable flaws. Within each group in the story – the Dutch traders, the Japanese officials and the British navy – there are both likeable and despicable individuals: there is no sense that one side are the ‘baddies’. The sheer length of the work engenders, by its end, a huge emotional attachment to the main protagonists. While the author avoids false sentimentality, the last few chapters are incredibly moving: you really feel you know these people personally. The historical detail was also fascinating: without laying on his research too heavily, David Mitchell teaches you a great deal about Japan and the tussles between Britain and the Netherlands. But ultimately this is a book about fathers and sons – from the opening birth scene to the pain of a lost son to the heartache of parting from your father. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jabob de Zoet’ reminded me a lot of the work of Louis de Bernières, particularly ‘Captain Corelli's Mandolin’ – the small, closed community, the Dickensian cast of characters, the clash of cultures etc. I really enjoyed ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ – it felt like an epic journey but one well worth embarking on.



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