Summary (from the inside cover): Imagine an empire that has shut out the world for a century and a half. No one can leave, foreigners are excluded, their religions banned and their ideas deeply mistrusted. Yet a narrow window onto this nation-fortress still exists: an artificial walled island connected to a mainland port, and manned by a handful of European traders. And locked as the land-gate may be, it cannot prevent the meeting of minds – or hearts. The nation was Japan, the port was Nagasaki and the island was Dejima, to where David Mitchell's panoramic novel transports us in the year 1799. For one Dutch clerk, Jacob de Zoet, a dark adventure of duplicity, love, guilt, faith and murder is about to begin – and all the while, unbeknownst to him and his feuding compatriots, the axis of global power is turning…
Firstly, this novel deserves all the hype it received in its Booker contention in 2010. I can't wait to read the Finkler Question, which pipped it to the post. As I said when I had read the first 100 pages, Mitchell has an astonishingly beautiful way with words:
"the shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot howls at Life"
"A friend might describe his narrow eyes as 'observant', an enemy as 'Mephistophelian'… His handshake could crush stones"
"Jacob finds himself as little able to evade the man's gaze as a book can, of its own volition, evade the scrutiny of a reader."
"The cogs and levers of Time swell and buckle in the heat. In the stewed gloom, Jacob hears, almost, the sugar in its crates hissing into fused lumps."
"The wind passes through Flag Square, soft as a robe's hem"
As I said in my earlier post, I particularly enjoyed the varied cast of characters. Our morally upright hero Jacob, torn between his betrothed Anna in Zeeland and the enigmatic Aibagawa Orito, student midwife on Dejima, contrasts wonderfully with most of the other Dutchmen, always prepared to make a quick buck. I was pleased to make better acquaintances of Ogawa Uzeamon and Orito as I moved into sections 2 and 3 of the book, although I found the various romances to be a little at cross-purposes. Arie Grote is a brilliantly strong character, portrayed mostly through his dialect (interestingly, Mitchell does not attempt to portray an Irish brogue for Con Twomey). Some of the characters turn out not to be at all what we had assumed (and I did not care for Captain Lacy's ever-increasing racial slurs).
Mitchell is not afraid to drop in amusing anecdotes of culture clash, such as when Jacob and Ogawa first meet (their handshake/bow confusion) and the unpleasant confrontation in the Hall of Sixty Mats when Vorstenbosch demands a chair. The abounding corruption and attempts of each man to get ahead, sometimes dashed by our hero (particularly in the episode of the peacock fans and the translator) often result in a little comic relief, sometimes in major plot twists.
I know very little of Japanese history, so this novel opened my eyes to a world 200 years and thousands of miles away. The ban on Christianity surprised me ("All Dutchmen except the Chief Resident and the Captain are searched for prohibited items. A list at whose head, Jacob thinks, is 'Christian Artefacts'"), and this recurs throughout the novel, with a visit to a Hidden Christian in section two, whose mishmash of the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary are not quite what we know today. The discussions between the Dutchmen and Japanese about democracy and polygamy ("'Democracy,' says Goto, 'is not a flower who bloom in Japan, I think") and divorce ("'What's the one sure cure for love?' asks Grote. 'Marriage is, is what'") give an excellent insight into the mores of the time. I'm glad that the proverb of the time – "When husband love wife, mother-in-law loses best servant" – no longer applies!
The novel isn't entirely without flaws – I was quite confused by the goings-on in the British encounter and found Ogawa's rescue somewhat self-indulgent. However, the descriptive beauty is such, supported by an excellent company of players and plotline, that it definitely deserves 10 out of 10.
Reading this stunning novel at a time when modern Japan is suffering such tragedy, with 2,414 deaths currently reported and a growing exclusion zone around Fukushima nuclear plant (although survivors are still being pulled from the rubble) seemed rather indulgent, but I can only hope that the events to celebrate the paperback launch (online, and in London) will result in increased and sustained support for the rescue efforts there. Jacob's fears of his own end in an earthquake ("Don't let me die here, Jacob prays, seeing his skull smashed under beams and yolky brains dashed in Dejima's dust") makes the horror over there even more real that the media does.
and it made it into Time's Top 10 Fiction Books of 2010