Orito, a character in this riveting and sprawling novel from David Mitchell, suggests that we cannot live without stories: “The belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories.” Perhaps it’s because I agree so completely that I love this new book; perhaps it’s because I agree that I am one of legion who think Mitchell is the greatest living writer in English. (There is no one else from whom a new book would ensure me being at the bookstore the day of its release.) This novel is well worth reading, and I encourage you to spend time in its world.
Its world is that of Dejima, an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki. Here the employees of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) live and work, forbidden from actually landing on the soil of Japan itself because of its strict policy of isolation at the dawn of the nineteen century, far from both the Netherlands and the VOC headquarters at Batavia (now Jakarta). To conniving, whoring, drinking, scheming, and defrauding that marks Dejima’s occupants comes the young and devout clerk Jacob De Zoet. Tasked first with identifying the corruption, Jacob is not in a position to make friends: he is determined merely to survive his five years and return to Holland to marry the girl he loves.
The island swarms with Japanese inspectors and translators, and much of the first section of the book details both daily life on the island and the diplomatic posturing between the VOC and the Edo magistracy in Nagasaki. Jacob is caught up in the intrigue of his superiors and by his own crush on an unobtainable young Japanese woman, Orito, who is apprenticed as a midwife to the Dutch doctor Marinus. The writing is lush: it is both cinematic in sweep and playful with the words themselves. There’s a marvellous set-piece, early on, in which Jacob chases a monkey who has stolen a leg from the surgeon through a warehouse; if you’re not at once laughing with mirth and astonished at Mitchell’s writing, then this book is not for you.
The second part of the book revolves around Orito’s life once relegated by her stepmother to an isolated monastery of stunning and revolting depravity. I found the shift startling as I read the book; yet in retrospect, it works well both to further the plot and to develop the ideas of isolation and of faith and scientific development with which Mitchell is playing. This portion of the book is deeply disturbing, and I found it challenging to read because of my emotional involvement in Orito and her would-be rescuer.
In the final portion, we (mostly) return to Dejima, now threatened by a British warship whose captain seeks to oust the Dutch and to establish trading relations with the Japanese (inspired by an historical incident). With echoes of Patrick O’Brian, we readers follow the events that are simultaneously inevitable and surprising. I rushed on to the end, reading until well past two—unready to leave the world of the novel and unwilling its end.
Near the end of the book is a set piece I have to share, so evocative and poetic is its writing:
Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers; lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses; heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses; prisoners haunted by happier lives and aging rakes by other men’s wives; skeletal tutors goaded to fits; firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits; tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year-old whores; the once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores; statues of Jizo anointed with posies; syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses; potters; barbers; hawkers of oil; tanners; cutlers; carters of night-soil; gatekeepers; beekeepers; blacksmiths and drapers; torturers; wet-nurses; perjurers; cutpurses; the newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant; the ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant; over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night's rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.
One could enumerate the various ways Mitchell brings the reader to consider the nature of isolation, from islands to language to social positions to the very idea of the foreign and so many more. This concern is central in my reading of Mitchell: consider any of the various narrators in Cloud Atlas, or Jason Tyler in Black Swan Green. I’m looking forward to rereading Thousand Autumns in a year or so to see if I can pin down some of my own thoughts on what Mitchell is accomplishing with this recurrent motif. It’s more developed, in this novel; it feels more visceral than it does in the recent past of Black Swan Green or the dystopian futures of Cloud Atlas, as if better capturing the malaise so endemic to contemporary life precisely because of the historical setting.
There’s another point upon which I offer only the briefest of comments, and cite a quotation and an event from the novel. While at times seemingly opposing faith and science, there’s a deep reverence and faithfulness that is staggering. “Hell is hell because, there, evil passes unremarked upon.” Nearing the end of the novel, facing the canon, as Jacob and Dr. Marinus together recite a psalm, I nearly wept.
This book also revolves around artistry. One might think Mitchell a devotee of Frye, when De Zoet answers the magistrate’s questions about Greek myths by saying that the “truth of a myth, Your Honor, is not in its words but its patterns.” (In and of itself, this line should be a sharp rebuke to some reviewers who have worried over anachronisms rather than engaging the story.) The patterns of this book are recognisable, unexpected in the encounter but not in reflection. To offer just one other example of the lingering concern for art Mitchell interweaves into the story, in a disturbing setting and moment of the story, a monk remarks that “Storytellers are not priests who commune with an ethereal realm but artisans, like dimpling makers, if somewhat slower” (perhaps warning us not to expect Mitchell’s next novel in the very near future). As Mitchell considers memory and experience, how we frame and create stories (and our deep, deep need for them), one could read the book as a manifesto about art
I hope you enjoy the novel; I hope you become one of the legion who marvel at Mitchell’s writing. “The belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories.” May you leave the novel with cravings well satiated.