The Dutchman in 18th Century Japan
Sometime, actually, depending on your taste and choices, you come across a book, that moves you and leaves you completely and totally breathless. At the ending of the book, you feel like have to part, you know you will part and while a part of you rejoices because you can now focus on other reads, there is yet another part of you that feels like something deep has been wrenched away from you! Without getting too maudlin, it is bitter sweet to say the least!
There are very many books, that provoke such emotions in all of us and personally for me, the older I get the more I am inclined to agree with my blogging friends who to quote live by the principle of Marcel Proust that “On the whole, though, the wisest thing is to stick to dead authors.” Very few new age authors impress me and with a few exceptions like MM Kaye ( she can hardly be called new, but her books were published in 1980s, so relatively new!) JK Rowling and couple of other, most books fail to touch anything inside me. They are not bad books, in fact some of them are very good; it just that I do not feel that, they have managed to touch a chord deep within me! In fact, most new age authors while being good reads, were exactly that, good reads! I had resigned myself and happily resigned to reading the dead folks whenever I needed some enrichment of the soul; until one day causally browsing I stumbled upon and brought on a whim – The Thousand Autumn of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell.
Its 1799. a young Jacob De Zoet is crossing the ocean to reach Japan, the tiny island of Dejima to be exact, as a clerk of Dutch East India Company, to investigate the corrupt practices of the previous resident of Dejima. Jacob has a lot on his mind, he wants to distinguish himself in the service of the company and most importantly build a fortune, so that he can return home to Holland to marry his sweetheart. In the same island, there lives an old Japanese Doctor, whose disfigured daughter, Orito Aibagawa is a talented mid-wife. As a reward, for saving the life of his new born son, the Japanese Governer, had allowed Orito Aibagawa to study at Dr. Marinus’s Academy. Dr. Marinus is an European and a man, and this exception granted to Miss Aibagawa is not something she takes lightly and all her focus is on becoming more proficient to help women needing help! Jacob takes up residence next to Dr. Marinus and soon becomes acquainted with Orito Aibagawa and becomes attracted to her from the start. However there are many other matters that need to be attended to and Jacob is soon involved in unvieling the corruption of the previous resident, only to realize that he has been trapped in an compromising position by his own chief, Vorstenbosch for the latter’s own greed! In the meanwhile, Miss Aibagawa’s father dies, leaving the family in deep debt and her step mother strikes a deal with the powerful monk Enomoto to sell Orito to his monastery deep in the Japanese mountain country as a payment for him paying off her husband’s debts! Orito on realizing the kind of card has been dealt by her mother, decided to seek a life as a “Japanese wife” with Jacob, whose attraction for her, she had always been aware off. However before she can achieve her end, she is spirited away by Enomoto’s men and Jacob caught in his own problems, is unable to rescue her! Now both, must use their own wit, to fight conspiracies, threats and even war to survive and seek out and finally achieve their ultimate life aims!
What can I say about the book? Critics will say it is linear and the characters are kind of uni-dimensional and for the western reader, there is an onslaught of Japanese names and practices! Some have even called it a romance. It is perhaps, all this, but it is still beautiful and so much more. David Mitchell in this sweeping tale weaves in History, Politics and trade and human emotions/relationships of all kinds! Japan in all her beauty and grandeur comes alive in the hands of David Mitchell and all her secrets, while remaining carefully hidden, are nevertheless given a glimpse off to help readers understand, how the land must have fascinated to Western world when they sought her out from 16th century, in turns being welcomed and the shunned.The history is deeply embedded in the narrative and in one of the most well crafted marrying of fiction and history, the history prods the narrative forward, instead of just serving as an interesting background. The customs and practices are clearly laid out and exceptions clearly explained! The characters are all well rounded and they stand their in all their glory of being good and bad. Jacob de Zoet while being a quintessential hero, honest and brave, is also given to lust and mopping. Orito is honorable but rational enough to know not all can be compromised at the stake of personal suffering. Dr, Marnius, Enomoto and so many other provided a living breathing ensemble of characters that evoke all kinds of real emotions within the reader. The beauty of the book however to me was in the very end, where instead of striving in a cliched end of improbabilities, David Mitchell, writes out a practical, sensible and heartbreaking end, in an ultimate testimony of art imitating life – life being of course practical and good, nevertheless, heartbreaking!
Wonderful wonderful book…I strongly recommend at least one read by one and all!