One of the characters in Ghostwritten, David Mitchell’s first novel, is a “noncorpum”: a disembodied spirit that travels the earth as a parasite on its human hosts. Restlessly seeking a clue to its own origin, it scours their consciousnesses, assimilates their knowledge and experiences as its own, and then transmigrates to another soul to repeat the process. It inhabits people’s bodies, speaks with their voices, and sometimes even directs their thoughts and actions when it feels they could use its help. “I live in my hosts’ minds,” it says, “and sift through their memories to understand the world.”
This roving spirit is a telling image for the novelist, who has similar powers of invisibility and omniscience, and also carries a similar taint of parasitism. But it is especially apt for Mitchell, who—during a career that now includes five novels in just eleven years—has demonstrated an indefatigable creativity, leaping from style to style and form to form, and reinventing himself in each of his books. Ghostwritten, published in 1999, assembled nine separate but interlinked stories, each with its own narrator (including the noncorpum), into an account of the human condition at the end of the last century. Cloud Atlas (2004), his third book, literally broke the form of the novel: the first five of its six sections, which take place in different time periods and are written in different genres (one imitates a nineteenth-century seaman’s diary, another is written entirely in the form of an interview), suddenly break off in the middle. After the sixth story, set in the far-distant future, unspools in its entirety, the stories pick up again where they left off, in reverse order, bearing us back into a past that is now transformed by what we know about what lies ahead.
So it was to be expected that when Mitchell set himself the task of writing a historical novel, he would turn it into a literary puzzle to solve. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet takes place in Japan at the turn of the nineteenth century, and yet to call it “historical” does not feel quite right. The setting is factual—the Dutch establishment of a trading base on the island of Dejima, the rise of Napoleon, and the wars that brought an end to the Dutch presence in Japan—but the rest is Mitchell’s invention. “For a few uncomfortable hours I began to feel like a historian, reconstructing historical events, and envisioning angry letters and contemptuous reviews,” Mitchell explained in an interview with the magazine Stop Smiling.
Then I told myself to set it in a nearby parallel universe where the Napoleonic Era happened as it did in ours, but where all the individuals in my little corner of the world are different. This means I am free to invent character and concoct plot as I wish.
Every historical novelist …