I must confess that this is the first David Mitchell novel I’ve ever read and I picked it up, not because it was a David Mitchell novel, but because it was historical fiction and had received good reviews and was now on the Booker longlist. I like good historical fiction.
On the other hand I’ve never really been much interested in historical fiction about Japan. I never could get into Shogun back in the day. So I was a little apprehensive. I shouldn’t have been. It became clear as the novel progressed that Mitchell’s intent was not to create for the reader the Japan of 1800 in detail but to give the reader little glimpses of Japan such as one of the rare visitors of Japan in 1800 would have seen. Japan was a closed society, visitors were discouraged and the study of Japanese society or even its language was not allowed. The few visitors who were allowed to visit were closely watched and could not fully interpret what they saw. As a reader, that is how we experience much of the Japan that we see in this novel.
This novel is not, then about Japan in 1800. And even though much of the action takes place among members of the Dutch East India Company, it is also not a novel that is principally intended to tell us what it was like to be a member of that company. Through long months out of the year, the men stationed in Japan did nothing but maintain a Dutch presence. It is not, in fact, a traditional historical novel. It doesn’t have a traditional love story. It doesn’t have a traditional ending.
I think Mitchell was more interested in exploring an idea than in telling a story. I think Mitchell was exploring the concept of imprisonment. And while he explores it he tells a pretty good story.
Jacob de Zoet is a clerk with the Dutch East Indies Company. He has joined the company for a limited five year stint with the intention of making his fortune so that he can return home and marry Anna, the woman he is in love with. He hopes to have freedom of movement within the Company by being indispensible to the new chief of the Japanese trading post whose stated desire is to root out the corruption of the previous post administrator. De Zoet cleans up the records and identifies the wrongdoings, which makes him no friends at the post, but his honesty becomes a liability when the head of the post himself wants to engage in shenanigans. And so rather than be allowed to return to Java (Jakarta) de Zoet is left behind in Japan as a lower clerk.
But he is not truly in Japan, he is on the man-made island of Dejima which is walled and has only two entrances: the sea gate that is opened only when a Dutch ship is in port and the land gate that gives access to the city of Nagasaki over a bridge. It is, essentially, a large but fairly comfortable prison for the men who live there throughout the year. A Dutch vessel arrives only once a year if they are lucky. If they are unlucky it is lost at sea and multiple years can go by with no contact with Europe. No European is allowed across the bridge to Nagasaki without the permission of the Japanese who are deeply suspicious of the foreigners. No escape from the island is possible because the Europeans could not blend into the Japanese population. The Dutch do not think of themselves as prisoners but they have limited freedom of movement and they are subject to roll calls by their Japanese watchers.
The men on Dejima have, however, varying levels of freedom. The company doctor, Doctor Marinus, is the most free. He has no desire to return to Europe. He has botanical studies that he is interested in and he has allies in Nagasaki through whom he is able to travel more regularly to and fro from the Japanese mainland. The least free are the slaves of the Dutch traders. They have no freedom of movement. In one chapter Mitchell gives us the story from the point of view of a slave who makes clear to us that the Dutch may be able to control his body but they cannot control his thoughts. Some of the other men are not slaves but are there because they were “pressed” onto ships and sent east, so they are little better than the slaves who were captured from their homeland. All of the men (except Doctor Marinus) dream of leaving Dejima and returning to their own homes and the people they love.
De Zoet makes friends with one of the Japanese/Dutch interpreters who has access to Dejima, Ogawa Uzeiman, who is interested in European culture. Japan is a closed society. It does not welcome foreigners and it does not allow any of its people to leave Japan, not even to study. Uzeiman would have liked to have travelled and brought back information that would be useful for Japan, but he is not allowed. There is “no precedent”. In that sense, the entire Island of Japan can be seen as a prison.
Jacob De Zoet also makes the acquaintance of one Japanese woman, Miss Aibagawa, a midwife and the daughter of a Samurai, who is very intelligent but whose face was badly scarred as a child. In the opening chapter of the book, Miss Aibagawa unexpectedly saves the life of the newborn child of the highest official in Nagasaki and he is so grateful that she is granted her wish to join the group of Japanese men who are studying on Dejima with Doctor Marinus. This unexpected freedom of movement does not last, however, and soon Miss Aibagawa is sent against her will to a cloistered nunnery attached to a monastery where she is to live for 20 years. De Zoet, who has come to believe he is in love with her, believes he will never see her again. Uzeiman, who is in love with her but who has been forced to marry someone else, is distraught at her absence and a key part of the novel is his breaking with all traditions in an attempt to break her out.
There are prisons within prisons in this novel both literally (the monastery within Japan) and figuratively (the marriage of Ogawa and his wife) and some prisoners are more free than others (Doctor Marinus and the slaves come to mind but also Miss Aibagawa and the other “nuns” are treated differently). And all of the characters are limited by their literal limited ability to communicate due to the language difference. But as the slave on Dejima knows, real freedom is the freedom of the mind.
Not much of the action of the novel takes place on the Japanese mainland and sometimes when the scene shifts to Nagasaki we see it through the uncomprehending eyes of the European men who are allowed to visit. In only a few scenes are we allowed a glimpse of Nagasaki through the eyes of Japanese characters and Mitchell doesn’t waste a lot of time in those scenes with superfluous description. He moves the plot along. There is one large section of the novel that takes place in the Japanese monastery but Mitchell’s point is clearly not to paint an accurate picture of a Japanese monastery for us since this one turns out to be an aberration that horrifies even the Japanese who discover its secrets.
How each of these characters deal with the limits on their freedom is the principal stuff of the novel. It is very well written and I seldom found my attention flagging. When the land gate that separates Dejima from Nagasaki is closed at the end of Part One and the “well oiled bolt” slides home we are aware of the fact that de Zoet is now imprisoned on the island but we are also aware that Miss Aibagawa is locked out. She has been trying to get onto the island because she believes that being imprisoned as the concubine of Jacob de Zoet would be better than being imprisoned in the Monastery. But she is not allowed to choose her prison. Later, though, Miss Aibagawa is in a position to escape from the Monastery but turns back at the last minute because she will not abandon a friend. Jacob de Zoet could, at one point, escape his life on Dejima by going along with the plan of an English Sea Captain but doing so would endanger the life of one of the other men on Dejima and so de Zoet refuses.
In general I enjoyed this novel. I have no idea, however, if the picture I got of Japan is at all accurate and I did not feel compelled, when I was finished, to do any research about that. Late in the novel, Japan is referred to as The Land of the Thousand Autumns and the name of the novel became clearer to me. The Japan that I was seeing was the Japan of Jacob de Zoet, not the Japan of the Japanese. In terms of historical accuracy, I will point out that at one point a character states that the American sea captain has told him that Indians were “being cleared west of Louisiana” and he thought he might go take part. I only point out that in 1799 no Indians were being cleared anywhere “west” of Louisiana by any Americans and the Louisiana purchase wasn’t even a gleam in Thomas Jefferson’s eye yet.
But that’s a minor flaw. The main flaw with the novel, in my opinion, was that the ending was anticlimactic. But perhaps that was intended. When a man is released from long years in prison and returns home, he often just wants to pick up the pieces of his life and return to “normalcy”. That makes sense. It just doesn’t make for a good end of a novel.