Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell ****

First, I want to recommend a blog: Rolling Around In My Head. In general, it's a blog about the world of disabilities--having them, living with & loving people with them, working for people with them, embracing them. The reason I mention this is that the author of this blog, Dave Hingsburger, has a book club going that includes books that deal with-you guessed it-disabilities. Some of the best books I've read lately are the ones he picks. And like people who happen to have disabilities, these books aren't defined by the inclusion of disabilities. They're just great books.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is first and foremost about loss.  Jacob is a young clerk sent from Holland to Japan in the very late 1700's to work for the Dutch East India Company.  When he makes this journey he loses touch with his homeland and very importantly to him, his religion.  He and his sister have been raised by his uncle, a minister, so it is very hard for him to be in Japan without any outward signs of his faith--Christianity was punishable by death at the time in Japan.  Also comes a loss of belief in the honesty of mankind, when in his process of auditing the books at the Dutch installment of Dejima he finds that the corruption of money has gotten to every level of the "factory".  Loss touches every character that touches Jacob also--loss of love, loss of a child, loss of faith, loss of youth, loss of innocence.  Because of this overwhelming feeling of loss, this book can be rather heavy.  But you can't stop reading because you want the losses to be abated, or at least to be for a higher purpose.  Sometimes, though, loss is just loss.  There is a hole and it won't be filled.

I'm sure Dave chose this book because of one of the settings--a perverse temple that claimed to care for women who were too deformed and imperfect to be missed from "normal" society.  Women who could be used with impunity and no one would be the wiser; women who were actually grateful to be cared for there because the world outside had treated them so badly.  It took a very special woman to come in and care for these "nuns"--though society could call her "deformed" also, she was confident in her knowledge and in her compassion.  She made the hell of that temple bearable for her fellow nuns, until another loss by a person far away took away the prison walls. 
I wanted, as I think most humans do, for there to be a "happily-ever-after" to this story.  But in truth, how many of us get to have that kind of clean finality?  I wanted a fairy tale ending, but I got reality.  When I was younger I craved the starkness of truth in all I read and would ridicule the cutesy endings to many books.  As I've aged I've noticed a desire to see that clean finality now.  Is it perhaps because stark reality is all around us and it's only as we get older that we see it everywhere? 
A very fine book, and another great recommendation from Dave.  Thanks.