David Mitchell - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
In his new novel, David Mitchell has penned a book layered with codes and gestures. Claire Sawers wrestles with the Booker-nominated author’s latest literary conundrum
‘I don’t have problems starting writing,’ says author David Mitchell. ‘I have problems stopping. I’m one of the last dads to arrive at school to collect the kids, because I want to get this paragraph just right. I often lose myself in the Sudoku-like challenges of making a book work.’ Mitchell isn’t known for taking a simple approach to his stories. His best known novel, Cloud Atlas, which reached the Man Booker shortlist, was described by one reviewer as having a ‘Rubik’s Cube structure’. Layering up voices from 70s California, modern London and a post-apocalyptic future Hawaii, that novel was ambitious and unconventional, melting together an airport page-turner, sci-fi nightmare and historical memoir.
Compared to the Russian-dolled plot of Cloud Atlas, his latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is relatively straightforward, following one main character, a plain Dutchman. De Zoet is an accounts clerk sent to Dejima, a man-made island outside Nagasaki which was used as a Dutch trading post. Mitchell discovered a Dejima museum while he lived in Japan during the 90s, and immediately thought the island – ‘a patch of land no bigger than Trafalgar Square’ – would make a perfect claustrophobic backdrop for a story.
Eighteenth-century Dutch merchants weren’t allowed to enter the cloistered Japanese empire over the bridge, and in turn Japanese visitors – except for prostitutes – were banned. Full of suspicion for each others’ cultures, rules were rigid, Catholic books were forbidden, and ‘lost in translation’ misunderstandings through interpreters were as common as green tea and Edam cheese.
‘Stuck in that monotonous grind for years, people’s standards of behaviour can slip and that’s when the mind games start,’ says Mitchell. As de Zoet tries to tiptoe neutrally through the corrupt dealings of rum-soaked sailors and power-hungry officials, he falls in love with a disfigured woman, Orito. ‘I’d say the book is 60% research, 10% dreamt up, and 30% based on everyday Japan as it is now,’ explains Mitchell, who worked as a teacher in Japan before settling in Cork with his wife, Keiko, and their two children. ‘I think anyone who has ever worked for a Japanese company might recognise a few things: the weather, the food, but also traits of the national psyche. People like to say that East Asians in general, and Japanese in particular, are not very expressive: there’s that term “inscrutable”. But often, Europeans just don’t get the Asian codes. Believe me,’ he adds, with a soft, but loaded laugh, ‘the message is being expressed OK.’
Mitchell studiously paints the cultural minefield around de Zoet in frilly, fact-dripping detail, but it’s his translation of the micro-gestures that start and end wars, or make or break marriages, that gives his writing an underlying power. ‘Every relationship has its own language. It takes a long time to evolve and read one another. Just as it’s true for people, it’s also true on a national or cultural level. There’s more to language than words: there’s cadence, tone, facial expressions. It’s the non-verbal stuff that might be saying “I absolutely hate your guts!” that’s important. Maybe you’re just looking at your watch in a very pointed way, but in other cultures that would be loud as a megaphone.’
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is published by Sceptre on Thu 13 May.