Mitchell Fuses Epic Elements in 'The Thousand Autumns'

Article excerpt

Literature can be dangerous, as David Mitchell reminds us early in his surprisingly traditional and panoramic novel, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet."

The year is 1799. The copper-haired Jacob de Zoet has arrived on Dejima, an artificial Japanese island, to work as a junior clerk for the Dutch East India Company. Though the shogun regime has banned Christian literature, Jacob has a Psalter stowed in his luggage.

The family heirloom is intended to protect Jacob: A bullet lodged in its cover hints at one of several occasions when it has miraculously saved a De Zoet's life. Yet he faces a grisly punishment if it's discovered on a trading post already rife with corruption and the vicious power struggles of a corporation staggering under debt.

This isn't the kind of tale you might expect from Mitchell, one of Britain's most innovative authors. A chunky linear narrative told in the third person, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" flaunts none of the structural experimentalism of his best-known novel, "Cloud Atlas," nor the stylistic inventiveness of "number9dream."

Yet the book is ambitious on its own terms. Fusing elements of a love story, a financial thriller and a maritime adventure, the plot spans almost 20 years, allowing Mitchell to reflect on leadership, courage and exile as he maps an encounter between two civilizations that is less a clash than a wary two-step.

In the best tradition of plucky young adventurers, Jacob has come to Dejima to make his fortune and claim the hand of his upper-class beloved back home. Before long, she is pushed from his heart by an even less attainable woman, Orito Aibagawa.

Floating in the port of Nagasaki, Dejima is the sole nexus between Enlightenment Europe and the shogun's isolationist realm. …