The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Finished reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet today. I had a “OH NO!!” reaction to the ending at first, calmed down, and then realized it was the only possible ending, considering the circumstances of the people involved. Even though I love David Mitchell, I dreaded reading this book at first – oh god, white guy goes to the Orient, falls in love with and rescues a damsel-in-distress – not again. But it doesn’t really turn out that way, because of the limitations imposed by Japan on foreigners at the time (1799), Jacob is quite helpless and unable to dash around saving anyone; Orito could have escaped her imprisonment through her own effort, but turned back at the last minute because it would mean abandoning the other women there who needed her skills as a mid-wife. Some of my favorite passages from the book:

You shall go back, Orito thinks, only if you choose to.
She imagines Master Suzaku, helpless, as Yayoi’s screams scald the air.
The bell could be a trick, she considers, to lure you back.
Far, far below, the Ariake sea is burnished by the moonlight …
What may be a trick tonight will be the truth tomorrow night, or very soon
“The liberty of Aibagawa Orito,” Orito speaks out loud, “is more important than the life of Yayoi and her twins.” She examines the truth of the statement.

“I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?”
“Oh, Descartes’ methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark … So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to co-exist, than seek to disprove …”

Jacob contemplates the details and the devils plants a seed.
What if this engine of bones, the seed germinates, is a man’s entirety?
Wind wallops the walls like a dozen tree-trunks tumbling.
and Divine Love is a mere means of extracting baby engines of bones?
Jacob thinks about Abbot Enamoto’s questions at their one meeting.
“Doctor, do you believe in the Soul’s existence?”
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”
“Then where …” Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton “… is it?”
“The soul is a verb,” he impales a lit candle on a spike, “not a noun.”

“It is not even Miss Aibagawa after whom you lust, in truth. It is the genus, “The Oriental Women” who so infatuates you. Yes, yes, the mysterious eyes, the camellias in her hair, what you perceive as meekness. How many hundreds of you besotted white men have I seen mired in the same syrupy hole?”
“You are wrong, for once, Doctor. There’s no -”
“Naturally, I am wrong: Domburger‘s adoration for his Pearl of the East is based on chivalry: behold the disfigured damsel, spurned by her own race! Behold our Occidental Knight, who alone divines her inner beauty!”

“So Miss Aibagawa must suffer – suffer the unendurable for the rest of her life?”
Uzaemon hesitates. “A friend, in Nagasaki, wish to help … with directness.”
De Zoet is no fool. “You plan a rescue? Can you hope to succeed?”
Uzaemon hesitates again. “Not he and I alone. I … purchase assistance.”
“Mercenaries are risky allies, as we Dutch know well.” De Zoet’s mind works an abacus of implications. “But how could you return to Dejima afterwards? And she would just be recaptured. You’d have to go into hiding – permanently – and – so why – why sacrifice so much – everything? Unless … oh.”
Momentarily, the two men are unable to look each other in the eye.
So now you know, the interpreter thinks, I love her too.
“I am a fool.” The Dutchman rubs his green eyes. “A myopic, holy fool …”

Naozumi takes the ivory carving and holds it against his eye.
Shiroyama does not gather his son into his arms and breathe in his sweet smell.
“Thank you, Father.” Kawasemi angles the boy’s head to imitate a bow.
Naozumi leaps away with his prize, jumping from mat to mat to door.
At the door he turns to look at his father, and Shiroyama thinks, Now.
Then the boy’s footfalls carry him away for ever.
Lusts trick babies from their parents, thinks Shiroyama, mishap, duty
Marigolds in the vase are the precise shade of summer, remembered.
but perhaps the luckiest are those born from an unthought thought: that the intolerable gulf between lovers can be bridged only by the bones and cartilage of a new being.


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