Chances and Choices
David Mitchell explores the forces that evolve our lives
by Molly Templeton
Dropped into every few hundred words of David Mitchell’s newest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House, $26), is a sentence to take your breath away. My copy of the book bristles with tiny sticky-notes, nearly every one underlining or pointing to a sentence, each to its own line, often a metaphor that gives life to the inanimate.
“The rain’s innumerable hooves clatter on the streets and roofs” as a man makes a fateful decision. A woman makes a terrible choice, and “The wind’s quick sleeves catch on the thorny glassy trees.” The cadence is poetic, the sentences too generous for understatement. Thousand Autumns is dense with history, rich with character and overlaid with a generous understanding and sympathy for the cyclical nature of humanity and choice.
Mitchell’s fifth novel is as different from his previous works as those are from each other. His last, Black Swan Green, was the autobiographical story of an English boy growing up in the ’80s. Before that came Cloud Atlas, with its linked, reflective narratives — some of which reached back to connect to his first book, Ghostwritten, told in multiple voices across the globe.
Compared to Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s best-known novel, Thousand Autumns, which begins in 1799, is simple. It is largely about Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk working in Dejima, the tiny artificial island in Nagasaki harbor on which foreigners — just the Dutch when the story takes place — were allowed to interact with the closed Japanese society. Jacob is an upstanding, perhaps overly honest fellow hoping to make a nice profit and return home to marry a nice girl named Anna. But the cast of characters he meets in Dejima, from the sly Dr. Marinus to the unusual midwife Aibagawa Orito, waylays his plans entirely.
In sections, Mitchell’s limited third-person narrative skips to an interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, or to Orito, sent to live in a nunnery as isolated from Japan as Japan is from the rest of the world. An unhappy slave briefly narrates; an English sea captain takes dominance of the narrative; a beautiful page sinks disconcertingly into poetry. This is Jacob’s story, but all its major players have a voice. Characters’ thoughts — and lines of dialogue — snap in the middle: “Ink, thinks Jacob, you most fecund of liquids …” The rhythm is distracting for the first few pages, until it becomes clear this is the rhythm of the story: The lives of its characters are similarly interrupted, and Mitchell’s phrasing reflects both this and the juggle of language, of implied translation among Dutch, Japanese, English and other tongues.
Mitchell cites the short sentences of James Ellroy’s detective fiction as an influence on Thousand Autumns’ style; he has referenced Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan as his “most conscious source” for the secretive shrine at Mount Shiranui. The references made in reviews of this and his other books sprawl across decades and genres, from Tolstoy to William Gibson to Haruki Murakami (Mitchell’s Number9Dream is his clearest Murakami moment). There are tiny overlaps with his previous books; coming stories, Mitchell has said, will involve Dr. Marinus. His world is a place where history runs in a slightly jagged course, but the future is entirely possible. “I’ve come to realize,” Mitchell told a New York Times interviewer, “that I’m bringing into being a fictional universe with its own cast, and that each of my books is one chapter in a sort of sprawling macronovel. That’s my life’s work, for however long my life lasts.”
The bigger whole is unaccountably beautiful, deeply moving and fully deserving of every loving cliché in modern book reviewing, up to and including “modern classic.” But not one piece requires you to have read the others, and Thousand Autumns is no exception. The novel is a historical romance, a seagoing adventure and a thriller thick with spies and loyalties and betrayals. The world Mitchell creates — the strange, cut-off port where communication is limited and home seems impossibly distant — is balanced by the depth of the connections among his characters, none of whom can see the whole picture, which Mitchell metes out swiftly and carefully, expecting us to keep up. His ideas spill over the walls that constrain his characters, out of the pages, out of time: “The present is a battleground where rival what-ifs compete to become the future ‘what is,’” one character says, neatly illuminating part of Mitchell’s exploration. The dangers of isolation, physical, national or emotional; the chances and choices that shape and change lives; the relevance of the human heart to greater fates, the lightest of steps and the greatest of hopes — these lines streak through his books in glorious sentences and exquisitely unfolded characters.
David Mitchell reads at 7:30 pm Tuesday, July 20, at Powell’s City of Books, Portland.