The Man Booker Prize judges never cease to amaze me. In this case, I’m going back to 2010, when the prize was awarded to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and the book I’m reviewing only made the long list. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, it seems to me of far greater literary merit than the winner; you can see what I thought of that here. It was also far more popular, going straight to number one on various booksellers’ lists. I know this isn’t a criterion that is taken into account, but there does seem to be a bit of a disjunction here.
The story is set in Nagasaki, and begins in 1799. It centres on a group of people who live on Dejima, a trading concession of the Dutch East India Company. Dejima is an artificial island linked by a land bridge to Nagasaki. Few people aside from Japanese officials such as interpreters and inspectors are allowed to cross over to Dejima or back from it; Japan is the Closed Empire and foreigners are strictly controlled. But the story starts in Nagasaki, where Orito Aibagawa, a skilled young mid-wife, uses Western medical knowledge to save the life of a mother who is having a difficult delivery, and her baby. It then follows the fortunes of Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who has come to Dejima to make enough money to marry his sweetheart back in Holland. Paradoxically, his main task is to document the corruption of other employees of the Company, which hardly makes him popular. The first of the five parts of this book tells of his small victories and larger defeats and betrayals, of his growing friendship with the Interpreter Ogawa – and of his love for Miss Aibagawa. The second part follows Orito, who is sold into the shrine of a goddess by her step-mother, and Ogawa, who also loves her. The third tells of a British frigate which comes to Dejima seeking plunder and alliance with the Japanese. The fourth and fifth much shorter sections resolve most the elements of the story.
Perhaps the Man Booker judges didn’t like the structure of the book. If so, I can’t agree with them. Each of the first three sections has a different focus, but the links are carefully constructed, and the story doesn’t feel fragmented. There are links revealed through the material and characters, and in the changes of perspective within each section, so, for example, in the third section, we get the view of both Jacob and the captain of the frigate. In Cloud Atlas, the only other of Mitchell’s books I’ve read – and see my review here – the narrative line is much more fractured, and felt somewhat artificial. This doesn’t. You can read what Mitchell says about the structure here, and you can follow up his reference to Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan here.
Also in that review, I questioned whether the multiple writing styles he uses in Cloud Atlas aren’t a bit too clever by half. Here, there is only one narrative style for all the sections – the intelligent third person observer. I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter whether this time it is Mitchell’s ‘authentic’ voice; indeed, there is no such thing. There is only the voice the novelist chooses to use at any given time, and the only judgement that matters is about the quality of that voice. And Mitchell’s quality is superb. Each character speaks just as that character should, and this requires a high degree of versatility, particularly as the characters are of a variety of ethnic origins and social classes. In addition, Mitchell has wonderful powers of observation and description. The prose poem near the end of the third section detailing the life of a Nagasaki street is one of the loveliest I’ve read.
I said above that the research behind this book is meticulous, but how would I know? Certainly the general outlines are accurate; you can read about the situation of Dejima, the Dutch East India Company, much of the detail about the exclusion of foreigners and Japanese attitudes to hierarchy and tradition on Google if you want. Even the incident of the British frigate has a basis in fact. But a better assessment may be that the historical content seems real. The physical setting and the views and attitudes of the characters all fit seamlessly into the historical context Mitchell has created. The time and place are intrinsically interesting, and perfect for amplifying his theme of the ‘foreignness’ of the eternal outsider, for Jacob, Orito and Ogawa are all in their way outsiders.
Reading the first section, I was absorbed by the detail, but a bit confused by the unfamiliar Dutch and Japanese names. I wondered where it was all going. Reading the second, I decided that the book requires patience. And I think it deserves it. That I can’t read about Nagasaki without thinking about its modern history just adds another layer to my response. It’s rare for me to like a book so much.
I wasn’t surprised to find that Mitchell lived for some years in Japan, and that his wife is Japanese. You can read more about the author here.