In Dejima with the Dutch East India Company

ATWIB 2013

I tore myself away from the Tudor court briefly for this one, which has a final scene in Holland, so I have counted it there, rather than feel I’m spinning my wheels progress-wise as I read these books that otherwise don’t fit my goals. However, although the protagonist of this novel is definitely Dutch, and for much of the book is focused on getting back to his homeland, the action takes place on an artificial island in Nagasaki harbor, designed as a trading post for a Japan otherwise completely closed to the outside world. It is the late 18th century, and the Dutch are the only Westerners with a foothold in this world. A ship arrives carrying a Dutch executive and his clerk, Jacob de Zoet. Below you will find my review from Goodreads. I really enjoyed this side trip, on which I learned that there is plenty of politics to be found in the Shogunate, on trading ships, and in the ranks of trading companies. It may not be the Tudor court, and the players may not be quite as skilled as Thomas Cromwell, but there is still plenty of scheming and life-threatening adventure to be had in this part of the world.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas was perhaps my favorite book from last summer. It was an ambitious effort, with multiple genres interwoven, and some really marvelous writing within each segment. It was brilliantly executed, and made me a big fan of Mitchell. Hence I was eager and curious about this novel.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is nothing like Cloud Atlas. It is simply a wonderfully crafted piece of historical fiction, set in a small trading post of the Dutch East Indies Company on a constructed island in the Nagasaki harbor. It’s the late 1790s, and Japan is closed to the West. It is ruled by the Shoguns and their allies. Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk arriving on a ship from Europe with a superior from the company intent on assessing the corruption occurring in Dejima. Before he has arrived on land, he already has a broken nose, and he is paralyzed with anxiety that his talisman of good fortune, a family psalter, will be discovered and confiscated by a regime hostile to all foreign religion. Soon he has met and become enamored of a disfigured Japanese midwife, whom he meets through circumstances too delightful to ruin by previewing them here. Meanwhile he is making no friends among the other Westerners on Dejima, as he is the one who must comb through the records of several years of trading to identify incidences of corruption, of which, of course, there are many. He also meets a mysterious monk who offers to buy the medicinal mercury he has personally brought to trade here as a means of making a small nest egg with which he can marry his fiancee back in Holland. The plot is thick with adventure, international conflict and diplomacy, lots of political maneuvering, and, of course, the complicated love interest. The writing works well, and Mitchell does a marvelous job of creating characters of all sorts through their dialogue. I will give you a view of the setting as Jacob first sees it coming ashore:

“Nagasaki itself, wood grey and mud brown, looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes. The smells of seaweed, effluence, and smoke from countless flues are carried over the water. The mountains are terraced by rice paddies nearly up to their serrated summits.

A madman, Jacob supposes, might imagine himself in a half-cracked jade bowl.

Dominating the shorefront is his home for the next year: Dejima, a high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island, some 200 paces along its outer curve, Jacob estimates, by eighty paces deep, and erected, like much of Amsterdam, on sunken piles. “

This is a great book, and I highly recommend it!

View all my reviews

Progress report:

Around the World (goal: 52 total including at least 6 in each of 6 different regions) 19
Asia/Mideast: 5 (Israel, China, Afghanistan, Japan, Iran)
Africa: 1 (Madagascar)
Europe: 8 (England/UK, Ireland, Monaco, Poland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Holland)
Caribbean/Central America/North America: 3 (US, Cuba, Haiti)
Oceania: 1 (Fiji)
South America:
Extra: 1 (Scotland)

Around the US (goal: 50 states, DC, and PR): 11 (CA, CO, GA, LA, MA, MN, MS, NM NY, PA, RI)

1001 Books (goal 52): 15

A to Z challenge (must be completed in order–26 author last names A to Z then 26 titles A to Z–strategy is all!): 11
Authors: Auster, Beinart, Chandler, Donovan, Eugenides, Faulkner, Grau, Hosseini, Ishiguro, Joyce, King, Lewis, Murakami
Books:

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About Beth Parks Aronson

I am Associate Professor of Psychology at Lamar University. Previously, I was a psychologist in private practice in Jenkintown, PA where I specialized in anxiety disorders and working with people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. I am a little addicted to good literature. Ok, a lot addicted.
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