David Mitchell’s fifth book, set in 18th-century Japan, cements his reputation as one of the finest English novelists writing todayby Julian Evans / April 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet By David Mitchell (Sceptre, £18.99)
“I got onto the wrong streetcar in Nagasaki in 1996 because I couldn’t read the signs properly. I ended up at a dowdy, half-restored Dejima [an artificial island constructed as a base for trade in the 17th century] and was fascinated by the place. So when I was reading histories of Japan later I would read those sections with greater interest. Then I read a book by Donald Keene, The Japanese Discovery of Europe, and it had lots of ends of possible novels that could be unpicked, unspooled.”
Over tea in London, David Mitchell is remembering the day 14 years ago when—aged 27 and not yet published—he made the accidental journey that planted the seed of his fifth novel, which chronicles the emotional ascent and dive of a young Dutchman on Dejima in the 1800s. It’s a truism to note that this seed could easily not have been planted. Mitchell might not have visited the city that day, might not have misread his destination, might have soberly visited the newly opened Nagasaki atomic bomb museum instead. But our lives are composed of towering, tottering structures of chance: a fact that Mitchell’s early fictions potentiated tirelessly. We are blind atoms, the children of both patterns and chaos. What later harnesses infinity to possibility is the world’s indifference to our fate, and one of the quieter achievements of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is that it treats with irresistible pathos the path of a life whose vividness lies in an adventure that is so defining as to be unsustainable.
Mitchell’s first novels were less concerned with that pathos than with the sometimes geekish mimicry of the mechanics of chance that underlay it. His was a versatile mind in a restless generation, to use F Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, generating copious, dazzling, stubbornly inventive stories that embrace science fiction, futurism and the supernatural.
At 41, Mitchell describes his early writing persona as “Mr Young Postmodern, monkeying about with structures.” He also concedes that in the globe-spanning, viral first-person interconnections of his first three books—Ghostwritten (1999), number9dream (2001) and the epic palindrome Cloud Atlas (2004)—he was “avoiding the messy, stuffy, icky mud of human interaction, which is where we live. We live in that swamp, we marry in that swamp, we bring up our kids in that swamp, we die in…