I’d read a couple of Mitchell’s books many years ago, and it wasn’t until I picked this one up, looking for some transport reading that I realised (given its Japanese subject-matter) I was predisposed to liking it. The enjoyment it’s given has me kicking myself at leaving it on the shelf until now.
The four years of research required to create the book are well-spent; the historical verisimilitude is pretty much untouchable. Precision of detail is paramount, though it’s not forced down the reader’s throat. The Sakoku era – when foreign contact was forbidden, only ended with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ‘Black Ships’ – is faithfully rendered. The outpost of Dejima – the only place trade was available, near Nagasaki – is brought to life without the distancing one usually finds in novels writing about the past. Some of the island’s denizens are a little more stereotypical than you’d imagine – especially the wanking monkey named after William Pitt – but nothing breaks the mood.
Throughout – though the locales differ – I was reminded of T.C. Boyle’s Water Music or John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Mitchell shares a similar sense of epic story, of past recreated which makes Boyle and Barth such superior stylists. Like these works, there’s a couple of different stories on the boil at once – the tale of a clerk seeking fortune, a story of love, a narrative about education, a study of international trade and politics, a cult mystery as well as a bit of travelogue, some sociology and some men-being-bastards tales. Bittersweet memories are never far from the narrators’ actions, though.
That’s not to say the book is absolutely true. Like Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, Mitchell has taken parts of historical record and bent them to fit his narrative. There’s a bloke kind of like Jacob in the history books, but it’s not him. As with Carey, finding the seams of reality and fiction in this work is often challenging, the mark of a good tale.
This isn’t as flashy as the other Mitchell works I’ve read: in this it seems he’s adopted a less-is-more approach. Perhaps unintentionally, there’s some wonderfully precise, still definitions which speak of the consumption of a lot of Japanese aesthetics. In particular, one description of a death brings Yukio Mishima’s writing on the same to mind: the same blend of oblivion and overpowering, beautiful nature is present. Elsewhere, a game of go mirrors political machinations; much is said without being spoken. Moments are taken to convey momentous events through the movement of an insect.
The end of the novel is (while a little compressed) wonderfully touching. This is the sort of book you complete with a pang of envy – envious that the author’s such a clever bastard, and envious of those who’ll have the luxury of reading it for the first time. It’s a book I wished I’d read earlier, because it is so effortlessly evocative.
I’m already imagining a re-read. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is masterful, and has joined my ranks of books to bang on about. Just read it.