Thursday, 13 August 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 29 - "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," by David Mitchell

The wealth of the New World created new opportunities for trade within the Old World. The return on investments in sugar plantations in the Caribbean, tobacco and cotton plantations in North America, and plundered gold from Mexico and Peru increased the demand within Europe for luxury products that had long been available to those who could afford them: silks, rice and porcelain from the Far East; spices from India & Sri Lanka; as well as for more generalised commodities, including copper and silver. As ships circumnavigated the globe, new luxuries also became available to European consumers for the first time: coffee & tea; chocolate & opium.

The British East India Company was established in 1600; the Dutch East India Company in 1602; the Portuguese East India Company in 1628; with competition from the French, the Swedes and the Danes. These companies had quasi-governmental powers, with their own armies and navies, and the power to negotiate treaties. China, India and Japan, however, were ancient, literate civilisations whose rulers were determined that this new trade, however lucrative, would be conducted on their own terms.

The Dutch East-Indiaman, Noord-Nieuwland, off Table Bay, 1762. Iziko William Fehr Collection (image is in the Public Domain).

Specifically, China and Japan were concerned that the exchange of goods should not be accompanied by an uncontrolled exchange of ideas. Already, in the 16th Century, Jesuit missionaries had travelled throughout Asia, gaining converts to Christianity. In the 18th Century, Western notions of "free enterprise" challenged traditional oriental institutions. A compromise between European and Oriental interests was to provide "trading concessions," limited enclaves where foreign ships might dock, but where the interaction between the Europeans and the Chinese and Japanese populations could be strictly controlled. China provided concessions to several European companies at Guangzhou. Japan created an artificial island, Dejima, granting the monopoly first to the Portuguese, and later to the Dutch.

Dejima in 1825, by Isaac Titsingh, Amsterdam, Koninklijke Bibilotheek (image is in the Public Domain).

Dejima and Nagasaki Bay in 1820, British Museum. Photo: PHGCOM (licensed under GNU).

David Mitchell's novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, is set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Dutch Dejima at the turn of the 18th and 19th Centuries. A young Dutch clerk, Jacob De Zoet, arrives, planning to make his fortune within a few years and then return to marry his childhood sweetheart. He is a conscientious employee, and part of his mission is to root out corruption, but this proves to be far more difficult than he is at first led to believe.

Everyone he encounters, Dutch and Japanese alike, seems to have a finger in the pie. Everyone, that is, apart from a young midwife, Aibagawa Orito, who has, unusually, been given permission to study with the enclave's Dutch physician. Inevitably, Jacob falls in love with her, but, when her father dies, she is sent away to a Shinto convent, whose abbot casts a menacing shadow over the novel.

The novel is meticulously researched, and Mitchell creates a stunning impression of a social and cultural milieu in which individuals from two very different cultures are given enough access to one another to pique, but never fully to satisfy, their curiosity. He also skilfully blurs the boundaries between historical fact and literary fiction. Jacob himself is "loosely based" on a historical figure, Hendrik Doeff, who faced down a British attack in 1808, but he is, nonetheless, a fictional character, whose confrontation with the real warship (HMS Phaeton) takes place in 1800, with a fictional captain (the latter a fantastic example of what a first-class writer can accomplish in the development of a minor character, in the space of just a few pages).

Hendrik Doeff, with Balinese servant, early 19th Century (image is in the Public Domain).

"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. Come Auction Day, it shall be sold to the spice merchants for a pittance, or else, as well they know, it must be returned to the 'Shenandoah's hold for a profitless return voyage back to the warehouses of Batavia ... The scratch of Jacob's quill is joined by a not dissimilar noise from a rafter. It is a rhythmic scratting, soon overlain by a tiny, sawing squeak. A he-rat, the young man realises, mounting his she-rat ... "

"'The Shogun's reply to my ultimatum is a message for me,' complains Voorstenbosch. 'Why must a piece of paper rolled up in a tube spend a night at the Magistracy like a pampered guest? If it arrived yesterday evening, why wasn't it brought to me straight away?' Because, Jacob thinks, a Shogunal communique is the equivalent of a Papal edict and to deny it due ceremony would be capital treason. He keeps his mouth shut, however ,.. "

"The noises of battening, nailing and herding are gusted in through the warehouse doors. Hanzaburo stands on the threshold, watching the darkening sky. At the table, Ogawa Ozaemon is translating the Japanese version of Shipping Document 99b from the trading season of 1797, relating to a consignment of camphor crystals. Jacob records the gaping discrepancies in prices and quantities between it and its Dutch counterpart. The signature verifying the document as 'An Honest and True Record of the Consignment' is Acting-Deputy Melchior van Cleef's: the deputy's twenty-seventh falsified entry Jacob has so far uncovered. The clerk has told Vorstenbosch of this growing list, but the Chief Resident's zeal as a reformer of Dejima is dimming by the day. Vorstenbosch's metaphors have changed from 'excising the cancer of corruption' to 'best employing what tools we have to hand' ..."

I have deliberately not quoted from Chapter XXXIX, an extraordinary piece of prose-poetry, including what is, for my money, one of the most remarkable and beguiling sentences in the whole of English literature. Such writing can only truly be appreciated in the context of the work of which it forms part.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

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