Bright prose leads a young 19th-century Dutch clerk through a maze of power-grabbing, greed and doomed love.
The surfaces of David Mitchell's vibrant, exquisitely written new novel, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," suggest a conservative, even antiquated tale. Set in coastal Japan during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it features scheming Dutch traders, courtly rituals, unrequited love, sea battles and acts of derring-do. Mitchell built his sizable following on feats of narrative gamesmanship like 1999's "Ghostwritten" and 2004's "Cloud Atlas," not the relatively conventional mode he works in here.
But "Thousand Autumns" succeeds in part because those old-fashioned storytelling skills are so firmly in his grasp. The hero of the book's title comes straight from underdog central casting: Jacob de Zoet is a clerk working for the Dutch East Indies Co., which keeps a base on a small artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki. His chief talent is to keep the books in order amid his bosses' diplomatic tussles with Japanese leaders. "Here is an honest soul in a human swamp of back-stabbers, a sharp quill amongst blunt nubs," as the port's commander rightly puts it.
So far, so unexperimental. Yet in time the novel encompasses more than stereotypical East-meets-West culture clashes. De Zoet becomes more enchanted with an attractive midwife named Aibagawa, but the story turns not on any courtship but on their separation. Aibagawa is sold into a mountain cult with a dark secret, while her anxious would-be suitor is further drawn into more hyperactive squabbling among the Dutch, Japanese and British. In time, the novel becomes something like an extended allegory on the perils of 21st-century globalization, commenting on expansionism, isolation, trade, women's rights, nationhood, religion, diplomacy and more. The thin walls in the Japanese court become symbols for the fragile peace in the port; a difficult-to-translate scroll represents just how thick and tall the barriers are between the different cultures.
It would be a mistake, though, to make too much of all the metaphorical activity bubbling under Mitchell's prose. For Mitchell's prose is a pleasure in itself, never better than in virtuosic passages when De Zoet's musings collide in real time with what he sees, sentences of thought and observation ping-ponging against each other. This novel is about language -- how it connects and distances -- and Mitchell revels in wordplay, nautical jargon and jokes. And he does it with little flash: The novel is mostly dialogue and crisp, brief paragraphs.
But Mitchell's lines bear a lot of weight about the persistence of moral and financial greed. As one of the Japanese characters puts it: "Isolation, ingenuity, power ... fear. ... These achieve most ends." That's true now as then, and Mitchell's novel has a timelessness to match its grand themes.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.