Random Reading (#3): David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)

With David Mitchell’s forthcoming novel, The Bone Clocks (2014), set for US release next month, it was about time I settled down and read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). This historical novel initially seems to be a radical departure from his first four novels, though Mitchell’s usual preoccupations with power, powerlessness, borders, movements (of lives, cultures, histories), languages, backgrounds, miracles, technologies, evils, and so on are all present. What makes this novel different, then? Perhaps simply the sense that it is built upon a world shaped so exactly to a pre-existing picture rather than a familiar modern world or a speculative future world to come. This may not be an accurate assessment, but The Thousand Autumns is nevertheless a novel that revels in research and thus risks disappointing readers who are resistant to the quotidian details and intrigues of a history and culture that may initially seem so unrelated to their own. Then again, isn’t this task (imagining some sort of relation to difference) identical to the readerly task in speculative and/or experimental fiction?

Rather than explore this question here, I thought I might point out one of my favorite little tendencies of the novel’s narrator. Though the objective narrator remains tethered closely to a mere handful of characters (and to Jacob exclusively in the first thirteen chapters), there are moments when it draws our attention away—just for a moment—to a detail (whether it be a sound, smell, or sight) that may or may not catch the attention of the focalizer or the scene’s other characters. Here are a few examples from the first few dozen pages:

In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates. (3)

Abruptly, the frogs stop croaking and, as though a curtain of noise falls away, the sound of Nagasaki can be heard, celebrating the safe arrival of the Dutch ship. (5)

The old whale-oil lantern sways and hisses. (11)

The sound of carousing washes over from Nagasaki [. . .]
The lamp has begun to sway; it smokes, sputters, and recovers.
A seaman in the lower deck tunes his fiddle. (12)

The incandescent sun is caged by a glowing bay tree [. . .]
Hooked gulls and scraggy kites crisscross the blue-glazed sky [. . .]
Across the street in the garden, cicadas shriek in ratcheted rounds. (29)

The Almelo clock divides time with bejeweled tweezers [. . .]
Carpenters hammer across the street. (36)

An enterprising fly buzzes over his urine in the chamber pot. (59)

Lethargic waves die on the other side of the seawall. (64)

A fat fly traces a lazy oval through light and shadow. (65)

Firecrackers explode in the Chinese factory across the harbor [. . .] The breeze carries over the smell of the Chinamen’s gunpowder [. . .] Beach fires dot the shoreline, all the way to the bay’s mouth. (84-85)

The buoyant moon has freed itself from Mount Inasa. (85)

A shooting star lives and dies in an instant [. . .] The cow lows in the Pine Trees Corner, upset by the firecrackers. (86)

And then, in a novel dominated by dialogue and focalized description and reflection, we get a section like this:

Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
Hanzaburo snores in the cubbyhole outside Jacob’s door.

Jacob lies awake, clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.
Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue’s root; wa, lips.
Involuntarily, he reenacts today’s scene [of meeting Aibagawa] over and over.
He cringes at the boorish figure he cut and vainly edits the script.
He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.
The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.
A watchman smacks his wooden clappers to mark the Japanese hour.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese half-Dutch window . . .
. . . Glass panes melt moonlight; paper panes filter it, to dust.
Daybreak must be near. The 1796 ledgers are waiting for him.
It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom loves Anna.
Beneath his glaze of sweat, he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.
Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable as a woman in a picture . . .
Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsichord.
. . . spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon, once . . .
The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.
can hear a harpsichord: it is the doctor, in his attic.
Night silence and a freak of conductivity permit Jacob this privilege: [Dr.] Marinus rejects all requests to play, even for his scholar friends or visiting nobility.
The music provokes a sharp longing the music soothes.
How can such a prig, wonders Jacob, play with such divinity?Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting . . . (56-57)

I am not entirely sure what to make of moments such as these, especially a scene framed by unattributed lyricism. Sometimes they intimate a drama of the non-human in concert with the effects of the human (the cow’s reaction to the fireworks, for instance). Sometimes they relate a detail that the characters themselves notice. Sometimes they draw our readerly eyes away from a tense moment and counter-focalize the narrative (if even for just one sentence) on something entirely unrelated (though perhaps it is thematically or philosophically or symbolically related). If these sentences seem to do so many things, is it possible to make a general observation about what they do or what they want?

I am constantly fascinated by the balance in Mitchell’s novels between the risk of sentimentality and the bleak ontology behind all the details, relationships, victories, defeats, and struggles that populate the action of his novels. He is a novelist who takes such great care to invest us in the lives of his characters before drawing a line through them, taking advantage of their (and our) precarity by centering the action around a different character, by killing an earlier focalizer, or by making a radical shift in time and place away from the current development of theme and plot. In short, he is a writer who offers us the escape and comfort of a writing that often borders on literary melodrama but who also wrests that escape or comfort away from us again and again. (This tendency is precisely why I found the adaptation of Cloud Atlas so disappointing.) Perhaps the narrative pattern of following the senses toward something outside of the narrative action is a way not only of setting a mood but also of reminding us that the matters that matter so very much to the naive, sentimental, and progressive (even if Orientalist) Jacob de Zoet do not matter when we take a broader, ecological, historical, global, or cosmic view of things. So why all this narrative space for Jacob? Why present “The Thousand Autumns”—the experience of Japan—through him (and a handful of others)? Perhaps I’ll take up this question up another time.

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