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The Beauty of a Hermetic, Corrupt World

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The Granger Collection, New York
The Dutch trading settlement on the artificial island of Dejima, Nagasaki Bay, Japan, 1804

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 must do this to some degree, of course, but Mitchell turns the form inside out. He has fabricated the world of imperial Japan from scratch, a world rich and gritty in all its particulars. In fact, a better designation for Mitchell’s novel might be “historical science fiction,” so complete is its sense of existing in a parallel universe—one recognizable as a version of our own, but in which all the details of daily life have been reimagined from the ground up.

Some authors let their readers ease in gradually, as if they were sinking limb by limb into a swimming pool; Mitchell flings his reader off the high dive into icy water. He has said that he likes to start his books one scene after the beginning and end one scene before the ending—an exaggerated form of in medias res. Characters are simply set before us, rather than being introduced, often with little clue about their identities and relations. To add to the initial bewilderment, each of Mitchell’s books is written in a language coded specifically to its time, place, and speakers. The English with which he renders the thoughts and conversations of the inhabitants of imperial Japan is distinctly different from the English he used in Cloud Atlas to describe futuristic Korea or the English he used in Ghostwritten for the interior narrative of his noncorpum. Heightening the sense of immediacy, The Thousand Autumns, like all of Mitchell’s work, is written in the present tense.

The Thousand Autumns begins with a childbirth scene: Orito Aibagawa is attending the labor of Kawasemi, the Magistrate Shiroyama’s concubine. The baby is stuck in a breech position, its arm protruding through the birth canal. Though Orito, as we will learn later, is a skilled midwife who has earned the special privilege of studying with the Dutch doctor in residence on Dejima, the baby is stillborn despite her efforts. (Mitchell’s language has always been closely calibrated to his characters: when Orito grasps a baby’s skull with her forceps, she finds it “spongy but firm, like konnyaku jelly.”) Yet as she is attending to her patient, a yelp from the crib astonishes her. The “shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot” is miraculously alive.

With the next scene, the perspective shifts. We are aboard the Shenandoah as it pulls into Nagasaki harbor, bearing the employees of the “Dutch East Indies Company” who are to staff Dejima for the next trading season. Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutchman who has joined the company hoping to earn an income sufficient to impress his future father-in-law, has his first glimpse of Nagasaki, “wood gray and mud brown…oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes.” The Europeans will be confined to Dejima, a tiny artificial island surrounded by walls and separated from Nagasaki by a wooden gate and stone bridge. Behind it lies the “Cloistered Empire,” which they are forbidden to enter except by official invitation. Upon their arrival, the men are searched for Christian artifacts—practicing their religion is against the law—and are taught the Japanese pronunciations of their names: Vorstenbosch, the chief resident, becomes “Bôrusu Tenbôshu”; de Zoet is “Dazûto.” All business is conducted through interpreters, who are themselves controlled by a strictly hierarchical ranking system. Accuracy is not guaranteed. “For why must we waste our scant monies on your obese salary?” demands Vorstenbosch, frustrated with the first interpreter sent to him. “How do you do, sir?” the man replies.

Mitchell has always been fascinated with the way things are organized, the complicated systems of checks and balances that keep companies or societies functioning. In Cloud Atlas, he laid out in great detail the rules governing a factory of clone workers. He lavishes similar attention on the elaborate hierarchies that work to maintain the dual cultures under scrutiny here: the Dutch expatriates and the imperial Japanese. Far from home and under little supervision, the employees of the Dutch East Indies Company have become notoriously corrupt, skimming off the trading profits and falsifying the accounts. Vorstenbosch has given de Zoet the task of sorting out the books for the past five years, a job that wins him little sympathy from the rest of the men, accustomed to bosses who are happy to do some cheating of their own. Their deception is mirrored by the similar tricks played by the Japanese, who are quick to exploit the Dutchmen’s ignorance of their language: an interpreter might deliberately mistranslate an order for one hundred fans as one thousand and plan to pocket the profits.

In the Shogunate, torturous systems of protocol regulate everything from the delivery of messages to the display of affection between parents and children. Each magistracy is governed by two magistrates: while one is on duty in Nagasaki, the other stays in Edo (the old name for Tokyo, and the seat of the shogun), and the next year they switch. If either flouts the rules, he can count on his counterpart to expose him. “Every seat of power in the Empire is divided, and thereby neutered, in this way,” the Dutch deputy explains to his chief. “Niccolò Machiavelli could teach the Shogun very little,” the chief replies. Since few of the rules are openly explained, the Dutch are continually offending the Japanese, both inadvertently and deliberately. “The Orient is all about signals,” Vorstenbosch tells de Zoet early on. A few pages later, paying a visit to Magistrate Shiroyama, he asserts his power over his host by blusteringly demanding a chair to sit on rather than the cushions that the Japanese favor.

The reader, likewise, must learn to read the book’s signals as it shifts between the Japanese and Dutch settings. The Dejima sections are labeled with dates in the European calendar, but the scenes that take place “in Japan,” though they may be concurrent, are designated by the lunar calendar. (The opening scene, for instance, takes place on “the ninth night of the fifth month.”) And characters’ names are expressed differently depending on who is speaking them: the Dutch call the Japanese characters by their surnames, with given names rarely appearing, but among themselves the Japanese use their given names. In the Dutch sections, Orito Aibagawa is always called “Miss Aibagawa”; in the Japanese sections, she is Orito.

In this isolated, hermetic world, language asserts an incalculable power. Foreigners are forbidden to learn Japanese; an interpreter caught teaching it could be charged with treason. Confusion is constant, since even the Japanese who have the most contact with the Dutch—such as the midwife Orito Aibagawa, whom Jacob becomes infatuated with after a chance meeting—have difficulties with the language. “Are you…a courtesan’s maid?” Jacob asks her, and then, trying to explain the words, elaborates hopelessly: “a whore’s…helper?” “Why horse need helper?” she answers. Later, the interpreter Ogawa describes his first encounter with the Dutch: “We pass through land-gate and I see giant from story! Nose big like potato…and hair yellow, like straw!…Then foreigner opened mouth and say, ‘Schffgg-evingen-flinder-vasschen-morgengen!’ This was same Dutch I study so hard?” In another scene of brilliant comedy, the American Captain Lacy tries to explain the democratic system to the interpreters, who struggle with the concept of a president elected by the people:

Great lords,” Ogawa Uzaemon clarifies, “choose president?”

Not lords, no.” Lacy picks his teeth. “Citizens. Every one of us.”

Even”—Interpreter Goto’s eyes settle on Con Twomey—“carpenters?”

Carpenters, bakers,”—Lacy belches—“and candlestick makers.”…

What if,” asks Goto, “people make bad choice and president is bad man?”

Come the next election, we vote him out of office.”

Old president,” Interpreter Hori is maroon with rum, “is executed?”

‘Elected,’ Mr Hori,” says Twomey. “When the people choose their leader.”…

Democracy,” says Goto, “is not a flower who bloom in Japan.”

At one point, Jacob conducts a tutoring session to help the interpreters with their Dutch. Much of the lesson is straightforward, but “terms without a ready Japanese equivalent, such as ‘privacy,’ ‘splenetic’ or the verb ‘to deserve’ cost ten or fifteen minutes.” Another concept that seems to have no easy expression is “freedom.” This becomes clear in the book’s second section, which follows the story of Orito Aibagawa. After Jacob proposes marriage to her—with a secret letter that he charges the interpreter Ogawa to slip to her inside a Dutch-Japanese dictionary—he learns that her family has sent her to live in a convent on distant Mount Shiranui, run by a powerful abbot named Lord Enomoto who may possess some kind of mystical powers. (At their first meeting, Jacob witnessed him kill a snake by a simple wave of his hand in the air.) No outsider is permitted to enter the convent, and sinister rumors swirl about the uses to which the masters and their acolytes put the nuns in their charge. Jacob eventually learns, by laboriously translating a clandestine scroll that winds its way to him nearly miraculously, that Enomoto has enslaved the women in a bizarre fertility cult, for which the services of a Western-trained midwife are essential.

The dual nightmares of abduction and slavery were Mitchell’s preoccupation as well in Cloud Atlas, in which global progress is shown to be grounded on forced servitude, from the first encounters between Pacific Islanders and white men to the clone workers in the future pan-Asian “corpocratic” empire. (In fact, the nuns on Mount Shiranui suffer a fate strikingly similar to that of the clones in the earlier novel.) Here in precolonial Japan, nearly all the characters are enslaved to someone or something: the Japanese to their magistrate and the shogun above him, the Dutch to the company that holds their pay and controls their comings and goings. The Japanese are forbidden to leave the “Land of a Thousand Autumns,” one of their names for their nation; to do so is treason. And for the Dutch, Dejima is a prison: the land gate into Nagasaki is closed to them, and if the ship expected once or twice a year from Batavia (now Jakarta) fails to arrive, as happens in the book’s third section, they have no news of the outside world, no letters from home, and no idea when they might be able to leave.

The isolation of the women on Mount Shiranui, it becomes clear, is a microcosm of the isolation of Japan at this moment in its history. The Shogunate’s policy of separation—personified by corrupt lords like Abbot Enomoto—is unlikely to be abandoned except by force, but the Japanese elite are starting to chafe against it. In one scene, Yoshida Hayato, a scholar at the Shirandô Academy, delivers a rousing foreign policy speech that warns perspicaciously of what the future holds. “This widely held belief that Japan is an impregnable fortress is a pernicious delusion,” he says.

We are a ramshackle farmhouse with crumbling walls, a collapsing roof and covetous neigbors…. The recent incursions…warn us of a near future when straying Europeans no longer request provisions, but demand trade, quays and warehouses, fortified ports, unequal treaties. Colonies shall take root like thistles and weeds.

He goes so far as to recommend annulling the decree that forbids subjects to leave Japan. “The third shogun closed the country to prevent Christian rebellions,” another scholar says, “but its result was to pickle Japan in a specimen jar!”

In another lecture at the academy, the Dutch doctor Marinus addresses the subject of scientific progress:

The days are coming when science shall transform what it is to be a human being…. Had a man fallen asleep two centuries ago…and awoken this morning, he should recognize his world unchanged, in essence. Ships are still wooden; disease is still rampant. No man may travel faster than a galloping horse, and no man may kill another out of eyeshot. But were the same fellow to fall asleep tonight and sleep for a hundred years, or eighty, or even sixty, on waking he shall not recognize the planet for the transformations wrought on it by science.

Much of Mitchell’s work has been preoccupied with the question of whether technological development brings salvation or destruction. In Ghostwritten, the answer is left open: the novel may or may not end in apocalypse. Cloud Atlas presents a terrifying vision of a planet filled with no-go territories called “dead lands,” peopled in tiny groups by the last remaining humanists, called Prescients, trying to preserve what they can of human knowledge. Here, the answer is suggested by one such scientific transformation. At one point Enomoto shows Ogawa a pistol and warns him that it spells the end of the era of the skilled warrior. “Any son of a shit-carrier could wield one of these and bring down a mounted samurai,” Enomoto says. “The day is coming—you shan’t see it, but I shall—when such firearms transform even our secretive world.”

In fact, that day comes by the end of the novel, when a gunpowder-laden British ship fires its cannons on Nagasaki from a safe perch out in the harbor. In a paradox typical of Mitchell’s work, the ramifications of the attack are twofold. By this point in the book, the reader can no longer doubt the sealed empire’s claustrophobia and corruption. Yet the gorgeousness with which Mitchell has rendered it forces a recognition also of the hermetic beauty of that closed world. Poetry appears in unexpected places, from the simplicity of a repeated phrase—“Tea is cool lush green in a smooth pale bowl”—to brief flights of mysticism. When Orito experiences a revelation in a dream, “the dark universe is packed into one small box that slowly opens.” In contrast, the scenes that take place among the Dutch are depicted in a language that is earthy and base, from the “flatulent grimace” on the face of a jealous man to the “slithery thud” of a turd in a chamber pot.

One can condemn the decadence of the Shogunate and still mourn the defeat of its exquisite cultivation by the crude bombast of the West. Fully imagined and yet ultimately ambiguous, Mitchell’s microscopic portrayal of this remote universe offers a reflection of the many ways in which we see and understand the past. As Shiroyama realizes toward the novel’s end, “This world…contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.”

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