DAVID MITCHELL’S “THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET”

Sunday, January 11, 2015

At last Friday’s annual “traslacion” of Quiapo’s celebrated Black Nazarene, an estimated 12 million devotees participated leaving two dead and two hurt in the aftermath.

More people will surely be present at the Papal visit. For my safety and sanity, I’m detaining myself at home for a week and will read (finally!) David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.



I have been meaning to read Mitchell’s novels after reading Cloud Atlas in 2009. Did you see The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s wonderful film adaptation of Cloud Atlas starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry? I wish they’d film more of Mitchell’s books.



David Mitchell is an English novelist. He has written six novels, two of which, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He has lived in Italy, Japan and Ireland.


David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a historical novel set during the Dutch trading concession with Japan in the late 18th century, during the period of Japanese history known as Sakoku.

The novel begins in the summer of 1799 at the Dutch East India Company trading post Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki. It tells the story of a Dutch trader’s love for a Japanese midwife who is spirited away into a sinister mountain temple cult.


Dejima and Nagasaki Bay, circa 1820. Two Dutch ships and numerous Chinese trading junks are depicted.

Dejima was a small fan-shaped artificial island built in the bay of Nagasaki in 1634 by local merchants. This island, which was formed by digging a canal through a small peninsula, remained as the single place of direct trade and exchange between Japan and the outside world during the Edo period. Dejima was built to constrain foreign traders as part of sakoku, the self-imposed isolationist policy. Originally built to house Portuguese traders, it was used by the Dutch as a trading post from 1641 until 1853. Covering an area of 9000 m2, or 0.9 hectares, it later was integrated into the city. In 1922, Dejima Dutch Trading Post was designated a Japanese national historic site.


An imagined bird’s-eye view of Dejima’s layout and structures (copied from a woodblock print by Toshimaya Bunjiemon of 1780 and published in Isaac Titsingh’s Bijzonderheden over Japan (1824/25).

Mitchell spent four years working on the novel, researching and crafting a vision of 18th century Japan. Small details, such as if people used shaving cream or not, could use up lots of time so that a single sentence could take half a day to write. “It was tough,” Mitchell said. “It almost finished me off before I finished it off.”

The origins of the novel can be found in 1994 when Mitchell was backpacking in western Japan while on a teaching trip. He had been looking for a cheap lunch in Nagasaki and came upon the Dejima museum. “I never did get the lunch that day,” Mitchell said, “but I filled a notebook with information about this place I’d never heard of and resolved one day to write about it.”

Some of the events depicted in the novel are based on real history, such as the HMS Phaeton’s bombardment of Dejima and subsequent ritual suicide of Nagasaki’s Magistrate Matsudaira. The main character, Jacob de Zoet, bears some resemblance to the real-life Hendrik Doeff, who wrote a memoir about his time in Dejima.

Late in the book, “land of a thousand autumns” is described as one of the names used by the Japanese for Japan.



The novel won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize regional prize (South Asia and Europe); was long listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, was one of Time Magazine’s Best Books of the Year (#4 Fiction), and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. It was shortlisted for the 2011 Walter Scott Prize.

Edit: Will certainly read The Bone Clocks after this. I’m just waiting/looking for the paperback edition.

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