“At the Crossroads, Jacob stops: ahead, Long Street continues to curve.
‘That’s Bony Alley,’ Grote poinmts to their right, ‘goin’ to Sea Wall Lane: an’ thataways,’ Grote points left, ‘is Short Street; and the Land-Gate…’
…and beyond the Land-Gate, thinks Jacob, is the Cloistered Empire.”
It was almost impossible to come to this book without the weight of expectations set down by the numerous mentions of the words “David Mitchell” and “the genius of Cloud Atlas”. The result is that when you open the pages and start to scan the pages you are looking for early and concrete signs that Mitchell is going to deliver.
The early signs are encouraging because it starts with Mitchell describing a world that is well researched but completely alien to a modern reader, describing Japan in 1799. This is a world that is cut off from the rest of the world, willingly and suspiciously keeping foreign influences at bay. But via a landbridge over to a small trading post Japan has made a trading relationship with the Dutch.
But before you get into that you have to go through a graphical opening passage describing a difficult birth of a child who manages against the odds to be saved by a skilled midwife. The passage is accompanied by an old fashioned etching type image that occasionally crop up elsewhere in the book.
Once that graphic and vivid introduction to Japanese culture, with men not allowed to see women naked, the midwife having her influence curbed because of her status you get the chance to move on and start the first book which is an introduction to the Dutch trading post through the eyes of Jacob de Zoet. The young clerk, the God fearing son of a clergyman, has been sent to clear up corruption that is rife in the trading post and he sets about his task with great gusto. But he is naive and the world he enters is not only a strange one but one that is tainted by politics, intrigue and violence that he initially appears to be far to wet behind the ears to deal with.
But there is a strength to de Zoet that comes from his conviction of what is right and his unbowed spirit is understood by others looking for someone to trust and as a result Jacob hovers in the background as the story moves on. The books that make up Thousand Autumns pick up the story of the Japanese midwife Orito that Jacob falls in love with as she is sent to a nunnery that carries out bizarre practices.
The story moves deeper into Japan and Mitchell opens up a world that is built on fear and power with the concept of what happens outside the halls of power and its borders almost irrelevant for its leaders.
But when the outside world does arrive with the British in the harbour firing cannon balls into the Dutch trading post the pressure is on to think differently and at that point Jacob returns to centre stage and the various strands of the stories come together.
Thematically this book is not just about the ideas of what is forbidden but the key concept is around the sense of things being lost in translation. It is not just words that are not understood but also actions and modes of behaviour. The breakthrough comes when Jacob makes the effort to teach himself Japanese. With interpreters not telling the truth it is one of the most powerful scenes in the book when he reveals he can understand them and talk their language.
“‘I am told,’ says the Magistrate, ‘that you now understand some Japanese.’
To acknowledge the remark would advertise his clandestine studies, and may forfeit a tactical advantage. But to pretend not to understand, Jacob thinks, would be deceitful. ‘Somehow I understand a little of the Magistrate’s mother tongue, yes.’
The horseshoe of advisers murmurs in surprise hearing a foreigner speak.”
But the other theme that will be carried long after the books has been read is the idea of traveling to different worlds and the concept that most of us don’t understand in this connected world – the idea of distance.
As Jacob falls in love with Orito he is pining for the woman he left behind and the gap between boats bringing letters and messages from home stretches and finally those links with the past are completely severed.
Mitchell has delivered a book that shifts focus from one character to another, from one perspective to another but done so in a way that works. My solitary criticism would be the occasional moments when periphery characters are given free reign to spend several pages on their life stories, which don’t add any particular value, but I sense even there it might be nit picking for the sake of it.