Monday, July 25, 2011

Nagasaki, mon amour

I love a big, chewy chunk of historical fiction (adult portion, please) and it's been awhile since I've indulged. (The last was this one.) I think I'm fearful of the time commitment, although this makes absolutely no sense. What is the difference between three six-hour audiobooks and one 18-hour doorstopper? I suppose you get more notches in your reading belt, but it really all comes out in the wash. David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet clocks in at 19 hours, actually, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I'd never read anything by this author, so I didn't bring any preconceptions about his work to this sweeping epic of traditional fiction.

Of course, there will be vast swathes of it that won't get mentioned here, but I shall attempt a summary. Red-haired Jacob De Zoet (YAH-cobb Dah-ZEHRT) has arrived in the strange little trading community called Dejima perched out in the harbor of the Japanese city of Nagasaki. It's 1799 and Jacob -- a scrupulously honest clerk -- is hopeful of making a quick bundle by working for the Dutch East India Company so he can marry his beloved Anna back in The Netherlands. The xenophobic Japanese have exiled the Dutch to Dejima in order to keep Christianity and other non-Japanese influences out. Only the most trusted Japanese can enter Dejima in order to facilitate the export of copper and lacquerware through the Company, and no non-Japanese can walk through the gate into Nagasaki. The Dutch were the only traders with Japan at the end of the 18th century.

Jacob has some difficulty transitioning to this odd, isolated culture. He disobeys orders immediately and sneaks his family's psalter (prayer book) under the noses of the Japanese inspectors. All of Dejima's residents put any Christian items in storage for the duration of their stay. What Jacob doesn't realize at first is that a translator named Ogawa spotted the psalter right away, but did not report it. The two men grow closer as Jacob gets used to his post, and eventually Ogawa transmits a letter from Jacob to a young Japanese midwife -- who is receiving additional medical training from the Dutch Dr. Marinus -- offering to take her as his "Japanese wife." But he never receives a reply from Orito, the midwife, as things take a dramatic turn.

Jacob's exposure of corruption in the Company's finances doesn't earn him a quicker trip back to Europe. Instead, he is demoted in favor of a less honest accountant. Orito's father dies with many debts and she is spirited away in payment to a remote monastery/convent with some particularly repellent practices. And Jacob learns that his friend Ogawa had been wooing Orito himself until his father insisted he marry someone else.

Add to this a vast and interesting cast of characters, a beautifully realized setting, thwarted love, a daring, cinematic rescue, delicate diplomatic negotiations with the bizarrely formal Japanese, the loving description of several 18th century medical operations (for strong stomachs only!), the appearance of a British warship, and many games of Go. I like that historical fiction effortlessly introduces me to other times and places, and all this was new to me. (My knowledge of pre-Meiji Japan is from Pacific Overtures and Heart of a Samurai.) It was fascinating, and on a a satisfyingly epic scale.

Two narrators share the duties, although most of the 19 hours are from Jonathan Aris. A voice actor named Paula Wilcox narrates the half-dozen or so sections where the story proceeds from Orito's perspective. Aris does an outstanding job -- producing authentic sounding, non-caricatured Japanese-accented English for the translators (I couldn't get my hands on a copy of the book to see if the dialogue was written with the missing "l's'' or "r's"), and fully accented portrayals of an Irishman, a Prussian and a half-Dutch/half-Indonesian slave. The Dutch all speak with British accents (class-specific), except on that British warship when the one Dutchman (a turncoat!) speaks with a Dutch accent. When the Japanese are conversing among themselves, they are British as well!

The one (slightly) inconsistent choice is that Jacob spoke in his halting Japanese with no accent. In other words, he retains his British accented English. The only way we know he is speaking Japanese is that his syntax was a little screwy. This didn't really bother me, as the rest of Aris' work is excellent. Completely clear, consistent and full of emotion. Jacob's sensitivity and isolation are palpable in this lengthy narrative. And when a certain character meets his death, whew! I was teary.

Particularly memorable to me: One Sunday morning Jacob hears the strains of the John Bunyan hymn "To be a pilgrim" across Nagasaki Bay coming from the English ship. Aris sings (beautifully) every verse and I've been hearing it on and off in my head ever since (you need the lyrics from the link at the title, but here's the music [lyrics not very well enunciated]. You know how I love it when a narrator sings.

When the action heats up -- the rescue of Orito from the convent, the staredown between Jacob and the mighty guns of the warship Phoebus -- I was breathless at the tension and pacing that Aris sustained. I sped through this book in about a week and I think it was because Mitchell keeps the suspense percolating and Aris maintains a spirited narration.

Wilcox just doesn't have the opportunities that Aris has to shine, but her sections appropriately reflect the closed and interior lives of Japanese women. She reads quietly, but with authority and Orito's desperation at her situation is frighteningly vivid.

Eensy, weensy problem: The many, many Dutch and Japanese names that go flying about the pages of this novel. The "foreign-ness" of the names might lead to some confusion for a listener. It did for me. There is one scene near the end of the novel where eight Dutchmen are together and Mitchell names each of them, one after the other. Beyond Jacob, Dr. Marinus and maybe the Irishman, the others had sort of blended together in my mind.

Someone went to the trouble of noting every single character in the novel (and shared it with the world), although you can see at the end that even s/he gave up! If you were to ask me who all but a dozen (okay, maybe 20) of these characters were, you're likely to have stumped me. But once the story got going, I had no difficulty figuring out who I needed to know by name, which is why it's just a tiny issue -- hardly worth mentioning! (Except that you do go on about it, Lee!)

I may have missed the explanation of the title in my listening, so I had to look it up on the internet (scroll down to "Ichijitsu-Senshuu") where all truth lies. Truly, longing is personified in Jacob -- who yearns for love, friendship, honor, wealth, faith, and more. I'll leave it for you to discover if he finds any (or all) of that.

[The image of harbor at Nagasaki -- with the wedge-shaped Dejima in the foreground -- is from a no-longer-available webpage and is in the public domain. It is in Wikimedia Commons as Nagasaki_bay_siebold.jpg.]

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
Narrated by Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox
Recorded Books (Clipper Audio), 2010. 19:00

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