A few wooden buildings

Places have memories. This is not to propose the pathetic fallacy that they have feelings, consciousness, thoughts or intentions, but that in the same manner that a certain synaptic pattern preserves a trace of experience in the brain, features of landscape and cityscape preserve traces of biography. Of course subjective experience can only be imaginatively resurrected from biographical details, or from buildings and artifacts, but it is entirely possible that this is also what occurs when we retrieve memories from our brain tissue. The act of recollection on the basis not of long-term potentiation of the synapses, but of topographic and documentary residues, is central to the literary genre of psychogeography, but also to historical fiction in general. When David Mitchell stumbled across a small neighbourhood of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch architecture in Nagasaki, the memory of a particular series of historical events, he felt moved to begin such a process of imaginative recollection.

He had found Dejima, once an island at the edge of the Bay of Nagasaki, but now absorbed into the city by a process of land reclamation, which housed a Dutch trading enclave from 1641, when they replaced the Portuguese, until 1854, when the Convention of Kanagawa rendered it obsolete. During this period Japan was legally secluded, with trade and contact with the outside world strictly controlled; for Europeans it took place exclusively through the offices of the Dutch East India Company at Dejima. Around twenty Dutchmen lived on this small patch of ground, around one-hundred and twenty metres by seventy-five, visited by no more than two ships a year. If that isn’t a fascinating scenario, a readymade setting for dramatic fiction, I don’t know what is.

Mitchell is known for innovative and experimental approaches to narrative, but The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a straight genre novel, a historical thriller with a linear plot. It is a technically exemplary work of historical fiction, characterised by plausible world-building (its accuracy is entirely moot, as I know little about the time and place in which it is set), and convincing spoken language, ‘Bygonese’ as Mitchell calls it, which nods to the turns of pre-industrial English phraseology without falling into tweeness. Most importantly, as with all good speculative fiction (and I make no apology for including historical fiction in that category), every aspect of difference between the world inhabited by the characters and that in which the reader can be assumed to reside, is shown, not told. The plotting is taut, effective, gripping, and has a sense of urgency that is abetted by the use of the present tense throughout. Repeated cliffhangers turn on a change of point-of-view character, leaving the reader desperate to tear into the next section and find out what happened.

One such shift is also into the first person. The shocking immediacy this brings to the narrative is deployed in a shift from the perspectives of other characters who are of more or less high status, to one who is a slave. It’s a very effective strategy, forcing the reader to confront the subjective experience of slavery from their own subject position; Mitchell takes the opportunity to explore exactly what that loss of liberty might feel like, and how it might be endured. This switch, and sudden immersion, is one of the most powerful moments in the book. Up until this point even the most socially engaged reader will have taken Dejima’s hierarchies more or less for granted as they follow a narrative focussed on the desires, successes, and setbacks of certain characters who for all the contingent restrictions on their freedom of action, are not chattels. Sadly, this brilliantly written passage is no more than an interlude, and its first-person narrator a minor character. When we return after a single chapter to the narrative’s established points-of-view, there is a jar – or at least there was for me. For a brief moment, this character was the most important in the book, the subjectivity to which all the others had led, the most marginal and unrecorded of experiences resurrected by the magic of fiction from a historical record in which it figures mainly as a trade commodity. But, it turns out, Mitchell invoked it to serve no more than a decorative function.

Perhaps he was too in love with his own brushwork not to include this portrait, even when it had become clear it had no real place in the book. Perhaps this is really the best representation the life of a slave could have, to be treated within the fictional domain as instrumentally as within the primary world of the historical record, but that is not a representation that reflects very well on Mitchell. Towards the end of the book there is another comparable example of a writer too in love with their own materials to resist including what does not really belong, when a long descriptive passage acquires rhyme and regular meter, although it remains justified on the page as prose. Again, it is extremely well-written, but again it draws attention to itself as a clever formal device, in the midst of a book whose beautifully constructed, lucid prose, is characterised by both consistency and transparency. In a novel as accomplished as this one, such unwonted departures advertise themselves as faults.

Also striking a dissonant note against the predominantly cosmopolitan, multi-cultural perspective of the book, is the rather bizarre fantasy that provides the plot with its propulsive mystery. Accusations of Orientalism could be levelled at a writer who decides to include fantasy, not of the magic and dragons type, but of the conspiracy-theorist, Da Vinci Code variety, in a novel that otherwise belongs to the historical fiction genre, and to make it a fantasy of Japanese depravity, contrasted in the book to prosaic forms of European dishonesty and corruption. The precise details of said depravity do not need to be rehearsed here, and I don’t propose to make a detailed analysis of the novel’s representation of cultural and ethnic identities, but it’s worth noting that this was a questionable choice on Mitchell’s part. To me, it felt like a cheap shot.

Although some characters are not on stage for long enough to appear as anything more than villains, for the most part every individual is portrayed sympathetically. Real honesty in a context of widespread corruption is shown as a plausible possibility, albeit one with significant costs; but other than the end-of-level boss around whom the central plot revolves, every character that we spend a reasonable amount of time with, has motivations for their behaviour that are plausible, that are reasonable responses to their context, and that evince a nuanced understanding of the moral and ethical ecology of Mitchell’s very particular revenant society. He has an empathy or compassion for his characters (you choose) which is probably a prerequisite for writing anything that feels like a description of a real person.

The memory of Dejima that Mitchell invokes is not populated by characters whose names appear in the historical record, with a few exceptions, while the few specific historical events that he deploys have been transformed in time and detail to fit the exigencies of his narrative. This does not invalidate in any way the novel’s status as an act of remembrance. A novel adhering literally to the available record, or a non-fictional account attempting to reconstruct the lives once lived on Dejima, could not, at this distance, make any claim to more effectively preserve those long-vanished subjectivities. What is most important, what is genuinely vital to the health of our global culture, is to remember that real people lived in such times and places, and experienced lives that were utterly particular to them. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is several things: it is a ‘literary’ historical fiction, a commodity which will enable middle-class readers to accumulate and reinvest yet more cultural capital; it is an entertaining and exciting thriller, which will enable readers of all stripes to lose themselves for a while in a milieu they will probably thank their preferred deity that they do not have to inhabit; and it is a vivid reading-out from the historical record of a memory, embodied in a few wooden buildings in Nagasaki.

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