That evening, by lamplight, Jacob retrieved the dogwood scroll-tube from under the floorboards and began the most exacting mental labour of his life. The scroll was not long – its title and twelve clauses ran to a little more than three hundred characters – but Jacob had had to acquire the vocabulary and grammar entirely in secret.
At first glance, David Mitchell’s latest novel is a more straight-forward affair than those which have gone before; were one to hazard a theory, it might be that Black Swan Green, as straight an autobiographical novel as Mitchell has written, marked a new phase in his career, after the youthful pyrotechnics of number9dream, Ghostwritten and, of course, Cloud Atlas. That last book in particular was remarkably polyglot and changeable – a heady mix of genre, voice and tone – and if in writing it Mitchell risked accusations of shallowness, or at the very least of lacking a clear authorial voice, he more than answered them with a quite masterly ingenuity.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell’s tale of eighteenth century Dutch merchants and their Japanese counterparts in the Nagasaki trading enclave of Dejima, is at face value an historical novel told chronologically in the present tense. It has a titular viewpoint character, a third person omniscient narrator, and a proper plot. This feels unlike the multiple viewpoints of Ghostwritten, the games of alternate reality in number9dream, and the playful intertextuality which connected those books with Cloud Atlas (and, indeed, with Black Swan Green). But towards the end of the new novel, which gradually reveals itself to be something stranger that it may at first appear, one of the three central characters, Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife, says this: “When pain is vivd, when decisions are keen-edged, we believe that we are the surgeons. But time passes, one sees the whole more clearly, and now I perceive us as surgical instruments used by the world.”
Mystery and ineffability seem to me key to Mitchell’s work: in Cloud Atlas, for instance, the characters are connected by an unexplained tattoo or birthmark they all share; in Ghostwritten the spirit world is literally present. There is always something beyond us which is nevertheless at work in the world. I differ with the Ex-Communicator that the supernatural must be similarly active in Thousand Autumns if we are to draw satisfaction from it; but it is undeniably true that it is an active part in the characters’ conceptions of the world. The Abbot Enomoto believes ritual sacrifice can produce immortality, and acts accordingly; the hidden Christians of Japan worship a quite different Christ to that of the Dutch, but believe in him fully regardless; the Catholicism of Con Twomey, Dejima’s sole Irishman, is passionate and powerful, shaping his identity and the events of his brutish life. Only Doctor Marinus, the gloriously realised Dutch physician and resident of Dejima, espouses a fully scientific conception of the world; and he, it is strongly hinted, is himself an immortal.
In a fascinating interview with the Agony Column, Mitchell places emphasis upon his first chapter, in which Orito saves the life of the son of Nagasaki’s Magistrate by applying the knowledge of childbirth she has gained from Dutch medical textbooks. It is, he says, a tribute to the way in which the scientific view of the world, developed in the period his book chronicles, has changed our lives in ways deeper and more far-reaching than the actions of any general or diplomat. Thousand Autumns is very much a book about knowledge – how it is shared and (as John Self has argued) controlled, how it is interpreted and translated – but in that scene, when the stillborn baby wails his first miraculous breath, he is described as a “mysterious animal”. The human being remains in some sense a marvel.
This balancing act is maintained purely through Mitchell’s prose. His writing here is his most accomplished, accessible but precise, and he employs an endlessly flexible style to open the reader’s mind to multiple perspectives in a far subtler manner than before. Here, the art of translation – from Dutch to Japanese, from Dutch to English, from scientific to religious – is the medium through which minds may meet. Everyone in the book is constantly travelling from one level to another in order merely to communicate. Whole concepts must be invented in one language in order to reflect another; different perspectives, different ways of viewing the world, must interface, however rudimentarily, if any single one is to have an effect. Japan, for instance, has kept itself in isolatation past the point at which that position remains tenable: the world is changing, it is becoming more interconnected and expansive, and even islands are no longer islands.
And so in many ways this novel is, beneath the face of it, quintessential Mitchell – except better. There are the curious structures – here a tripartite one in which we are given first a Dutch, then a Japanese, then an English point of view – and the themes, methods and quirks with which his readers are already familiar. There is a compassionate humanity, and an multi-faceted interconnectedness, on show. But there is also a fluency and consistency of style, a subtler and suppler command of the many genres and voices, which makes this feel like a great novel, rather than a great David Mitchell novel. It’s extremely satisfying stuff, even if the final third may lack some tension. Indeed, the three sections, it might be argued, at times read like three separate novels. But I rather think that Mitchell’s great strength is that he can be read in a great number of modes, simultaneously if necessary, and still make sense.
That is, he is endlessly interpretable.