The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

You may have to make room for one more on your list of favorite authors. David Mitchell is a spellbinding writer. He manages a large cast of double-dealing characters, obscure Nippo-Dutch historical facts, entwined stories, brilliant plot twisting strokes and still leaves himself room to show off. There will be two or three spots where a reader will think “Wow…that’s different.” Neglecting to underline in this book (big mistake), all I can recall at the moment is the Captain’s earthly thoughts during the Chaplin’s numinous reading, but there are several passages where you have to say Mitchell’s writing is something else.

The story takes place on Dejima, an artificial island a few steps off shore of Nagasaki. Dejima is the Shogun’s inventive work-around to ensure that no barbarian (particularly Portuguese Jesuits) step foot on Japan, while keeping trade with the outside world flowing. After the Portuguese get their walking papers, the Dutch set up shop on Dejima. They work under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), the power of which makes Google, Facebook and Halliburton look like pikers. As the VOC unravels, ordinary employee corruption became epic corruption. To drain the swamp, the new Chief Resident of the Dejima Station brings with him an industrious, honest clerk named Jacob de Zoet. De Zoet has signed on for a stint with the VOC in order to make his fortune, thereby allowing him to marry slightly up in society upon his return to his hometown of Domburg.

There are some entertaining characters in the cast…Jacob, of course, the evil abbot and a particular favorite, Dr. Marinus. While vastly differing in content, the pregnant dialogue between Jacob and Dr. Marinus reminds one of that between Lord Varys and Tyrion in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Conleth Hill must play Marinus in the movie, but alas there won’t be one. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was 3-hours long and panned as being too ambitious and rife with yellow-facing. But all of this is beside the point, which is that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an engrossing read…and always keep David Mitchell on your radar.

Disgrace

The Iluminado have varied their approach to selecting books over the years. Sometimes we do it systematically via weighted multi-voting. Sometimes folks just make suggestions at the end of the meeting and a consensus is swiftly reached. At present, we are in the midst of a once-though rotation where the host selects the book. This provides an opportunity for every Brother to take us somewhere interesting without having to hard sell the book to the group. It fell to this humble scribe to pick the current book. Playing it safe, I picked a blue chip…Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. A Booker Prize winner by a Nobel prize winner. What could possibly go wrong…right? Well…apparently I am surrounded by ignoramuses.

Right out of the box it was “Oh, I hated everyone!” “Too much raping!” & “It wasn’t a fun story!” As this book was as about as close to perfection as I’d ever encountered, I was stunned. One Brother was able to throw me lifeline by recounting a conversation about the book with his South African neighbor, which opened the door to a “you Americans just won’t understand” dismissal of the book. My choice and book-picker reputation were on the ropes…I had a hand in The Dwarf, which went over like a lead balloon and Blindness, which had a good discussion, but only a few gents read the book.

In spite of the high level dislike, we began chewing over the scenes and themes. And a funny thing happened, a long and interesting discussion arose. It helps that almost every event or inner observation in the book is worthy of analysis.

Did Melanie say no? Did David approach his inquest properly? Was Lucy’s making up for the past just foolishness? What did you think of Petrus? What about Ettinger? Poor Bev Shaw? Why does David visit Melanie’s parents? What do you think of the Servant of Eros defense? What is to be expected when a single, aging Lothario hits the wall? Why were Lucy and David disgraced when they were on opposite sides of unwanted encounters? Was everyone too blasé about teachers hooking-up with students? Are we cruel to God’s creatures with our human privilege? Will Byron in Italy ever be written and why is it included in the story? Why won’t Lucy leave the farm? Does racism breed the deepest hatred? There are so many topics to discuss.

Clearly, based on our experience we can’t predict if you will like the book, but if you read it and discuss it…to steal a phrase from David Lurie – you will be enriched by the experience.