The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

Though not having been short-listed for the Man Booker prize, there are at least five good reasons to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (London 2010).

– the language, the language: while Mitchell makes non-native English speakers acutely feel the limits of their vocabulary, he also enriches it with thousands of words from all corners and levels of the language – from the coarsest to the most sophisticated. But above all it is beautiful, exciting, and consistently subservient to the intricate story line …

– which is the second reason to pick up this book: the fast-forward rushing story line that keeps one reading till the very end …

– third: being another examplary historical novel about a fascinating period: set in Dutch Deshima in Japan, firmly grounded in historical record but in its imagined reality free to  explore aspects of the Dutch-Japanese encounter that transcend the facts of the historian … the intrigues of geo-politics, the rise and fall of Dutch koopmanship, intercultural romantic love that moves forward the lives of the protagonists as well as the plot, interests in medicine, science and philosophy that bind Japanese and Dutch together but alienates them from some of their contemporaries, the endless problems of translation, and people that change with the times – themes of world history in one of its crucial phases.

– fourth: a Leiden University connection via scholarly research on this period by Cynthia Vialle and Leonard Blussé

– and, finally, fifth: the inobtrusive references to the so-called ‘hidden Christians’ in Japan who survived the suppression of Catholic Christianity in the early seventeenth century, the lingering suspcion of Christianity by Japanese officials, the religious convictions of the clerk Jacob de Zoet – a devout Christian clinging to his Psalter but over the years growing closer to the physician’s agnostic position-, in combination with the fertility cult that plays a crucial role in the story, make religion in its global permutations and effects on human behaviour one of the important subthemes of the book.

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