David Mitchell – The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet

This might just be my favourite book. Regrettably, I read this during a time I’d stopped writing down my thoughts about books. It should be interesting to see what I can come up with almost two years afterwards. Because this book holds special memories for me I felt it couldn’t be left unmentioned. So here goes, what makes this my favourite book?

First, I have a very clear recollection of how I started it. We were on a short sailing trip to Altea in Spain in the beginning of the year. In Holland it was still cold, but there the Spanish spring was already in the air during the afternoons. No wind that day, so we waited at the harbour. Most sailors then start talking shop, in other words, talk about sailing endlessly. This bores me. Luckily I’d taken my book along. I hadn’t even started it yet, so I took a seat behind some boats (in the sun of course) and opened The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Sometimes you read a book and you know after only a few pages: this is going to be perfect. Jacob de Zoet immediately felt good. I don’t suppose I got very far that particular afternoon, what with bored sailors coming around for a chat and having to politely fend them off; I’m reading here! But like I said, the start was already very promising. You should probably say that this book takes some time to get into. David Mitchell has his own unique style – in this case having to portray Dutchmen speaking their language in an English book, an interesting dilemma I can tell you – and that always requires some extra thought. Fortunately, with every thought, you make this new world your own and start to understand it better. What’s ideal about this is that main character Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutchman sent out to a very small island-colony off the coast of Japan, also has to understand a new world. This immediately creates a strong bond between reader and character. With this learning-game you get lured into the first part of the book, which is all about Jacob discovering the island Dejima, getting to know his countrymen but especially coming into sparse contact with some of his Japanese neighbours. Their different cultures is what it’s all about.

Halfway through the book the perspective suddenly shifts. Jacob de Zoet is put on hold, so to say, and we now follow his Japanese friend Orito, a disgraced midwife who’s locked up in a mountain monastery. Here the plot takes a sharp turn and starts building up steam. Orito has to be freed and, what’s more, English invaders threaten to capture Dejima from the Dutch. Once you reach this second part it’s almost one rush to the end. Needless to say this makes for an exciting read.

What doesn’t this book have? There’s love, friendship, betrayal, war and corruption where two opposite cultures interact and clash. Personally I loved reading about such an obscure but highly interesting part of Dutch history (written by an Englishman!) and especially enjoyed some of the colonial battle scenes between the Dutch and the English (then again, I’m a sucker for war scenes). The nice thing is, however, that another reader might very well care more for Orito’s predicaments in the monastery or her and Jacob’s Japanese friend who tries everything to get to her. In other words, there’s something for everybody in this book, that’s what I strongly believe.

I realize I’ve used quite a few words to come to this conclusion, but I hope this clarifies my decision somewhat to name this website after Jacob de Zoet and why I go on about this book so much. I’m almost scared to read more by David Mitchell now. Although with a movie of his preceding book Cloud atlas in the cinemas I should certainly like to try.

Sceptre, 2010
469 pages

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