Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

This was my first return to audio books after a long while, and it was an undiluted joy. Mitchell's language is ear-catching, and the book simply glows when read aloud. The two narrators, Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox, are both British actors, and they hit the book's tone just right. It was a spectacular 19 hour performance.

A map of the Dutch trading post on Dejima, Nagasaki.
[Courtesy the  University of  Texas map collection]
David Mitchell simply refuses to be wedged into a pigeonhole, and he steps with incredible agility into new genres. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas share the quality of switching between centuries past, present and future in different parts of the world; Black Swan Green is a coming-of-age novel set in contemporary England. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a temporally contiguous historical novel set in early 19th-century Japan. It's a more stylish, latter-day Shogun -- Clavell spun a great yarn, but Mitchell's story just splashes verve at every turn.

"This is bliss," I thought to myself a number of times while listening to this book. I'm sitting or lying somewhere, very comfortably, while insanely skillful English actors are bringing this splendid book to life for me. There's no denying that listening to an audio book is a more passive activity than reading. Some books are better suited to audio than others, and morever, the narrator(s) can make or break the experience. The Thousand Autumns... passed much too quickly.

I wonder if David Mitchell is a poet. I mean, is does he consider himself a poet? He constructs sentences as a craftsman selects the various components of windchimes, his ear attuned to all the combinations of sounds. Listening to this text, I started to remember all those terms for linguistic sound harmony -- alliteration, consonence, assonence -- from my school days. I doubt they'd come through as well if I were reading the text. This book, like poetry, benefits from reading aloud.

When Mitchell tells of "a pewter sky", I picture not the polished Selangor pewter gleaming in Kuala Lumpur shop windows today, but the 18th-century pewter mugs and pitchers that stood on my parents' shelves when I was a child. Much higher content of lead, lower of tin, a somber, dull, heavy grey. I see that pewter sky as if I were looking at a photograph, and I know that heavy raindrops will splatter down momentarily.

I often thought to myself, Oh, that's so good -- I should get up, find a pen and jot it down, but I was loath to break the rhythm, the continuity of the book.

I happened to have a pen at hand when a group of the Dutchmen were lounging about drinking and discussing life with their Japanese interpreters. The young and earnest clerk, Jacob, asks one of the Japanese about the basis for marriage in Nagasaki.

'What about,' Jacob speaks with sake-inspired frankness, 'What about love?'
'We say when husband love wife, mother-in-law loses best servant.'

Jacob discovers, however, that the Japanese men are capable of enormous love. Love, perfidy, courage -- all emotions are writ large in this book, but they still retain a sense of decorum and elegance. Opening with one character's birth and closing with another's death, the story spins the reader through thousands of seasons in its characters' lives. It was an amazing trip.

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