Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Among my latest trove of purchases from the Book Depository (free shipping to most of the civilised world) is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Mitchell, who featured in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2007 (see here), lived in Japan for many years, and skimming through the synopses of his earlier novels, it's clear that his time there has had no small influence on his writing, with at least two boasting Japanese settings and/or Japanese characters. Mitchell also has a Japanese partner, whose first name just happens to be the same as Mrs Fool's.

Anyway, I'm nearly half way through The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It's set during the Edo period on the island of Dejima (which I'm sure you all remember from this post about the Nagasaki Kaido). The eponymous hero is a clerk with the Dutch East India Company. This morning I came across the following passage. Jacob is riding out a typhoon in the company of the intriguing Dr Lucas Marinus, physician and botanist.
Each time Jacob is certain the wind cannot rampage more maniacally without the roof tearing free; the wind does, but the roof doesn't, not yet. Joists and beams strain and clunk and shudder like a windmill rattling at full kilter. A terrifying night, Jacob thinks, yet even terror can pale into monotony. Eelattu darns a sock whilst the doctor reminisces about his journey to Edo with the late Chief Hemmij and Head Clerk van Cleef. 'They bemoaned the lack of buildings to compare to St Peter's or Notre Dame; but the genius of the Japanese race is manifest in its roads. The Tokaido Highway runs from Osaka to Edo - from the Empire's belly to the head, if you will - and knows of no equal, I assert, anywhere on Earth, in either modernity or antiquity. The road is a city, fifteen feet in width, but three hundred well-drained, well-maintained and well-ordered German miles in length, served by fifty-three way stations where travellers can hire porters, change horses and rest or carouse for the night. And the simplest, most commonsensical joy of all? All traffic proceeds on the left-hand side, so the numerous collisions, seizures and stand-offs that so clog Europe's arteries are here unknown. On less populated stretches of the road, I unnerved our inspectors by slipping out of my palanquin and botanising along the verges. I found more than thirty new species for my Flora Japonica, missed by Thurnberg and Kaempfer. And then, at the end, is Edo.'

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