Monday, May 21, 2012

Another Recent Fictional Nagasaki East/West Romance:
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

When Butterfly rehearsals began, in early April, I shared an exciting new Butterfly-related novel on this blog. Now that we’ve closed our final performance, yesterday, I want to draw your attention to another great new book: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell, published in 2010 by Random House. Set in Nagasaki about 100 years before Madama Butterfly takes place, this thrilling, captivating read follows another romance between a na├»ve western man and a Japanese woman: this time it’s an idealistic young Dutch clerk, Jacob DeZoet, who falls for a brilliant, disfigured midwife. You have to read the wild adventures that ensue to believe them. Suffice it to say that Mitchell, whose many awards and honors mark him as one of our most promising young writers, has the rare gift of being able to balance accessibility and popularity with ambition and an incredible way with words.

View of Nagasaki Harbor
from Old Photos of Japan

During the centuries that Japan pursued its policy of strict isolationism, Nagasaki was the only entrance and exit from the country—and even that was very carefully controlled. Much of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet takes place on Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki harbor where the Dutch East India Company was allowed to build its warehouses and staff housing. David Mitchell uses the claustrophobia of this pressure-cooker setting to push his young clerk to the edge and over. His novel is historically fascinating, populated with memorable characters who follow a completely unpredictable, genre-bending plot, and buoyed up on fantastically rich language. As our farewell to Nagasaki and Madama Butterfly, we quote the passage (from Mitchell’s conclusion) in which Magistrate Shiroyama, preparing, as did Cio-Cio-San, to make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of honor, contemplates the life he’ll shortly be leaving:

“Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truths in fragile patterns, over bathhouse adulterers; heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers; lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses; heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses; prisoners haunted by happier lives and aging rakes by other men’s wives; skeletal tutors goaded to fits; firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits; tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year-old whores; the once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores; statues of Jizo anointed with posies; syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses; potters; barbers; hawkers of oil; tanners; cutlers; carters of night soil; gatekeepers; beekeepers; blacksmiths and drapers; torturers; wet nurses; perjurers; cutpurses; the newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant; the ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant; over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of the Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight, This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.”
--from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet
by David Mitchell

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