The Cloud Atlas author surprises again with a historical novel.
David Mitchell narrates just about everything. We’re chatting on the phone, he from his home in West Cork, Ireland, about his new historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House, $25). The book has been out in the U.K. since the middle of May but just hit American shores, so when asked if he’s grown tired of talking about it, the 41-year-old English novelist says, “No! Not at all, he lied through his teeth.” He goes to this a few times throughout the conversation, and we can’t help thinking it’s a tick born of being a writer who sees narration and structure everywhere. His debut novel, 1999’s Ghostwritten, tells a single story through nine narrators, and 2003’s brilliant Cloud Atlas tells six stories over the course of hundreds of years, only to boomerang back through them again.
His latest is of a different sort. The titular Jacob is a Dutch clerk sent by the Dutch East Indies Trading Company to the Japanese island of Dejima in 1799 to clean up some company corruption. The book progresses through Jacob’s various trials at the hands of superiors and inferiors, and his forbidden love for Orito—a scarred midwife whose intelligence endears her to Jacob. The narrative then switches gears to investigate a mountain nunnery run by the numinous Lord Abbott Enomoto, who earlier in the book conducted anguished business dealings with Jacob. The final third returns to Jacob and tightly ties his story in with the nunnery, Orito and Enomoto, and seals all of their fates. It is, for Mitchell, a story with a seemingly standard structure, but he says he tucked a few tricks beneath the surface.
“It’s three parts, so far so classical in a way,” he says. “But in book one there’s just one narrative head, in book two there are two narrative heads, and in book three there are three narrative heads. So it goes from a one-stroke engine to a two-stroke engine to a three-stroke engine, which I hope and feel gives the story an acceleration.”
As in his previous work, Thousand Autumns is deeply concerned with power. Jacob, a religious and intellectual man, often has to play second to fools who are better at company and island politics. Orito studies medicine with Jacob’s friend, the Dutch Doctor Marinus, but is still subject to the whim of family pressures. The company, like the cloistered mores of 18th-century Japan, makes a slave of almost every character in the book. Dejima, the Japanese trading port—and the only Japanese land on which foreigners were allowed to stay—was an even crueler crucible.
“Dejima was my starting character,” says Mitchell. “I’m not elevating myself to Dickens’s level, but you can see how London becomes a person. It’s more than just a stage, it’s a mood-generator, a coincidence engine the way a living, walking, breathing character can be.”
The book rolls along on a grand narrative that deals with love, slavery, pride and, sure, prejudice for some 500 pages. But like an artisan, Mitchell carves his finest moments from the smallest details, single lines that resonate for bunches of pages. In one such moment, Jacob’s drunk, naked and nuance-resistant chief sits with him on the roof of a brothel, regaling him with his own sob story. Jacob, who had planned to return to Holland a rich man to win over his betrothed’s family, but whose life at this point has derailed in dramatic fashion, looks out and thinks, “I miss seeing children.” The historical details, too, bring Dejima to life. Mitchell lived in Japan for years and traveled to the Netherlands to research a clerk’s life.
“You have to do the research to make it believable,” he says. “But if all of my research is visible, the novel would feel like one enormous and insufferable Wikipedia article.”
The release of Thousand Autumns comes at a time when Mitchell’s star couldn’t be any higher. In 2007, after the release of the semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, Time put the author on its Time 100, a list of the most influential people in the world. It’s also worth noting for Mitchell fans that Cloud Atlas is slowly making its way through Hollywood. The Matrix’s Wachowski brothers bought the movie rights, and Natalie Portman has reportedly signed on (though Mitchell says he won’t “spill the beans” over whom she’ll play).
With its multiple moving parts and intricately overlayed storylines, Cloud Atlas would seem doomed as a screenplay, despite its popularity. But Mitchell says he’s read the screenplay, and that the intention is not to “simply film the book.”
“I am under contract to say it’s good, but I’m in the weird position of having to say it’s good and also thinking it’s very good,” he laughs. “The Wachowskis are artists who happened into filmmaking,” he says. “We met once, it started off as a business meeting and we ended up spending all day in each other’s company. I can hear an observer say He would say that wouldn’t he? And the answer is, Yes I know I would, and it’s true.”
Thousand Autumns, then, asks Mitchell’s fans to try something new at the peak of his popularity. And he’s tailored his big, brainy novel to keep them reading.
“How do you not overstay your welcome?” he says. “Generally, long books do overstay their welcome. So my method is to use structure as an ally, and weld three novels together into one. And when each is that short, you have your getaway car from the tedium cops.”
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is out now.