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Literature / The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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The year is 1799 and Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk at the Dutch East India Company, intends to make his fortune. He plans to stay in Dejima (the man-made island where the Dutch traded with the Japanese) for a single year and earn his fortune so he can marry his fiancee Anna. However, while he is there, he meets an unusual young woman with a burned face by the name of Orito Aibagawa. The daughter of a samurai and a midwife, she's studying medicine under Dr. Marinus and Jacob becomes quite attracted to her and Orito seems to reciprocate his affections.

However, after a series of twists and turns, both Jacob and Orito end up in serious trouble and soon more lives than theirs rest on the choices they make....

This is the fifth novel by David Mitchell. It was published in 2010 and is a current New York Times Hardcover Bestseller. Well worth reading.


This book provides examples of:

  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Even the more sympathetic Dutch characters keep slaves, keeping Japanese courtesans as 'wives' is common practice and all half-Japanese, half-Dutch children are under the jurisdiction of the Nagasaki magistrate for their entire lives and cannot leave Dejima without his permission.
  • Deus ex Machina: Pendergast stops firing on Dijima because Jacob's red hair reminds him of his son. Possibly lampshaded by the fact that Jacob is reciting the 23 Psalm at the time.
  • Eats Babies: Yeah, Enomoto is just that evil.
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  • False Friend: Shuzai is in the pay of Lord Enomoto, as Ogawa discovers right before Enomoto executes him.
  • Honor Before Reason: The titular character. Contrasted with several other characters in the book. Also applies to Aibagawa when she has a chance to escape Shiranui shrine, but goes back for the sake of Yayoi and her twins
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Ogawa facilitates Jacob's proposal to Orito because it would be much better for her than any of the alternatives, although Orito is ultimately captured before she can agree.
  • Indy Ploy: Jacob towards the end has to rely on these.
  • Japanese Christian: forbidden in Japan at the time, all the Dutch have to surrender their bibles, crosses, and other Christian aritfacts before they set foot on Dejima. Jacob manages to hide his psalter, a fact that becomes important later on in the book
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Enomoto truly believes he is 600 years old himself, and is subtly shown removing the life force from small animals, but since supernatural elements are otherwise absent from the extremely realistic novel, and these are never directly stated to be true by other people than Enomoto - whom is decidedly nuts - the question of the truth in his words remain unanswered.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Phoebus arc of the British ship under Captain John Penhaligon is clearly based on the HMS Phaeton Incident in Nagasaki harbor in 1808, though certain differences are clear. The main parts, that a British ship arrives in Nagasaki under Dutch flag, captures representatives of the Dutch, and unsuccessfully tries to bargain with the Japanese and Dutch before leaving without combat, followed by the suicide of the Nagasaki magistrate, are unchanged. The primary differences are the character of the British captain: The real captain Fleetwood Pellew was actually an 18 year old blood knight with a power career, while the captain from the novel is an old tired man, primarily concerned with his retirement. De Zoet is however clearly based on Hendrik Doeff, the Dutch commander at the time of the incident, and the Japanese faces similar problems with lack of preparation on understaffing, though the novel provides a different reason for the magistrates suicide. Also, the British never bombed Dejima in real life, and was not itnerested in negotiating with the Japanese for trade relations, but merely plundering Dutch ships in the harbor.
  • Seppuku: Subverted. Enomoto thinks that Shiriyama is intending to commit seppuku. Instead, Shiriyama poisons himself, his chairman and Enomoto
  • This Is Unforgivable!: The magistrate Shiriyama says this to Enomoto as they're both dying.
  • Title Drop: In chapter 29, of Mitchell's previous work: "like an atlas of clouds".
  • Touch of Death:
    • Enomoto has the unnerving ability to remove the "ki" from lesser creatures, effectively killing them instantly.
  • The 'Verse: A subtle, easily-missed example— the minor character Satsuki Miyake mentions that she hails from the small island of Yakushima, hinting that she's a distant ancestor of Eiji Miyake, the protagonist of Mitchell's 2001 novel number9dream, who also comes from Yakushima.
    • Marinus also appears in Mitchell's follow up, The Bone Clocks where it is revealed that he is an immortal that is reincarnated into new bodies after death. Marinus also lets drop in that book that he once encountered a mysterious monk in Nagasaki who was found to be using a rudimentary psycho-decanter. It's similar to the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, but far less dangerous.
    • The last chapter has Jacob ride back to his home country aboard the “Profetes,” with a servant named “Boerhaave.” This is the same ship that appears in Cloud Atlas during “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” where it is named the Prophetess and where Boerhaave has graduated to first mate
    • Con Twomey is revealed to be actually named Muntervary, an Irish debtor and convict who escaped to Dejima after killing a British officer. His fate is left unstated, but Mitchell's first novel Ghost Written prominently features an Irish scientist named Mo Muntervary.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Unico Vorstenbosch by the end of part one and Lord Abbot Enomoto until his Karmic Death.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: If the report Jacob receives is any indication, Enomoto kills Shuzai and the ten mercenaries after they deliver Ogawa to him.


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