Sunday Salon: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
I am about half way through The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet now and thoroughly enthralled. The opening chapter was gripping, the first section a little slower with many foreign names that I found a little difficult to retain and distinguish (I do think a 'Thousand Autumns' bookmark would be an excellent idea. This is something my mother often does when she is reading a book with foreign names. She makes a list on a piece of card with a one-sentence summary of who they are, and finds it useful for keeping track, especially if she has to put the book down for a while) but after a while I decided to stop worrying and just go with the flow, and found that, very shortly, they became real and distinguishable - thanks, no doubt, to Mitchell's characterisation.
It was set in a small isolated Dutch trading post in Japan at the end of the eighteenth century. The characters are convincingly dishonest and the way some of them are introduced is witty with scenes I think I shall always remember. Conversations have a unique style (at least it is not one I have ever encountered before). The characters speak but as they do there is a short description of unconnected occurrences interwoven with the dialogue. It was like a film sequence in the hands of a skilled director, and to me conveyed an impression of timelessness, and also emphasised the petty nature of some of the human transactions: no matter how much we lie and cheat there will always be the purity of a bird singing or the wind rattling a blind. The world will go on despite all that we do. Maybe that is not what David Mitchell intended at all - but that is how it struck me.
The end of that first section was as stunning as the opening and now I am in the second section and in recognisable David-Mitchell-land, with the voice that I loved in the futuristic parts of 'Cloud Atlas' - although this is set in the past. It is interesting, I think, that the further we get from 'now' the more we are at liberty to imagine and a mythological past is just as satisfying as a fantasical future.