The pain in Jacob’s nose suggests a breakage, but the stickiness on his hands and knees is not blood. Ink, the clerk realizes, hauling himself upright.
Ink, from his cracked ink-pot, indigo rivulets and dribbling deltas…
Ink, drunk by thirsty wood, dripping between cracks…
Ink, thinks Jacob, you most fecund of liquids…
Certainly, this is true of the ink that flows from David Mitchell’s pen. Mitchell, 41, has already written so much, so well: futuristic tales in Ghostwritten, pitch-perfect genre novellas in Cloud Atlas, semi-surrealism in Number9Dream, the sweet and almost painfully smart coming-of-age story Black Swan Green, and now the historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell’s huge new book centers on a young Dutch clerk who, in 1799, arrives in Dejima, the artificial island and isolated Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor, and on a midwife, Orito Aibawaga, with whom Jacob falls in love. The book moves between their two stories, undulating like the sea or the oscillating style of Mitchell’s prose.
Like Jacob, nailed on the nose with an ink pot during a fight, a reader would be forgiven for mistaking Mitchell’s ink for blood. His grace notes bewitch with casual power: the “oyster of phlegm” spat onto a man’s shoe; the way an approaching storm “bruised” the daylight. Except for a few moments of lull, the plot moves quickly and playfully, warmed with sentiment. Virtuosic and ultravivid, the book is like a strange and shimmering dream. And yet, as in the moment of waking, the reader is left with a sense of simultaneous wonder and disappointment. What seems at first to be such fertility, an overabundance of life, turns out to be weirdly sterile. One looks for a beating heart and finds an ink pot.
On the face of it, this criticism might seem grossly unfair. It’s like faulting Mitchell for being too good, or even for writing a book instead of giving birth. No novel is really alive, and The Thousand Autumns comes unusually close to conjuring a human presence on the page. Ironically, that makes the author’s failure all the more apparent—and the book’s ambivalence about human constructions, diffuse but pervasive, all the more unsettling and distracting. It is almost as if Mitchell were a brilliant magician who can’t help but wave his hands and admit the whole thing is fake. Suspend your disbelief—but don’t really believe.
The Thousand Autumns is not, as practically every critic has pointed out (some exuberantly), a “postmodern” text. It communicates authorial anxiety not with self-conscious gestures at its own textiness (Hey! Look at me! I’m a novel!) but with straightforward storytelling, richly adorned with detail.
At the same time, texts play a central role in the book, even as plot devices. Interpreters are heroes and villains. A dictionary hides a marriage proposal. A book can save a man. “It is a literal truth that I, your father, and you and Geertje owe this book our very existences,” Jacob’s uncle said when he passed down the psalter that blocked the bullet headed for Jacob’s great-great--grandfather’s heart. Imperfect translations exacerbate the chasms between cultures.
The scenes involving problems of language are some of Mitchell’s best. Scenes featuring perhaps the most appalling horror imaginable are less urgent, partly because the heroes are irreproachable. Orito in particular has a kind of superior moral status. As a midwife, she helps bring life—squalling, bloody life—into the world. The novelist, a midwife by metaphor only, seems uncomfortably humbled before her.