The confrontation between east and west, between xenophobic Japan and Christian Europe, has generated many historical novels; however, the problem with historical fiction is how to set an accurate stage for the story without drowning the readers in tedious historical details. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet manages to do just that, drawing the readers into a beautiful and dangerous world. As the novel opens, it’s 1799, and the Land of the Rising Sun is closed to the West, save for one trading post on the island of Dejima that is run by the Dutch. Young Jacob de Zoet has arrived there to make his fortune and to win the hand of his beloved, Anna, whose father has promised they can wed after Jacob has served a five-year posting in the Far East as a clerk.
The religious Jacob is both fascinated and repelled by the teeming street life he sees around him: “gnarled old women, pocked monks, unmarried girls with blackened teeth,” chanting street urchins, unscrupulous merchants, expensive courtesans, the smells of “steamed rice, sewage, incense, lemons, sawdust, yeast and rotting seaweed.” Although his boss promises that the only danger in Japan is tedium, the righteous Dutchman quickly finds himself caught in a thicket of corruption, thwarted by pirates and thieves left over from the previous administration. Still, he’s thoroughly convinced that in the matter of “moral bookkeeping . . . all that matters is truth.”
Jacob also finds himself inexplicably drawn to Orito Aibagawa, a young Japanese midwife with a scarred face, who is studying medicine under the tutelage of a Dutch doctor. Orito has earned this unheard-of privilege for a woman by successfully delivering the seemingly stillborn son of a powerful magistrate. Though Jacob soon becomes obsessed with Orito, his love for her is forbidden: as a Westerner, he is an outcast in Japan, and Orito is prohibited from ever leaving her homeland. While the opening section, which establishes the world of Dejima and introduces the central characters, is largely static and sometimes monotonous, the second movement — which recounts the abduction of Orito and her internment in a mountaintop “nunnery” for disfigured women run by a group of evil monks, piracy and war— is a frantic and fascinating thriller. What unspeakable evil festers behind the holy rituals of this sanctuary high in snow-capped mountains? I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Brave men will give their lives to find out in the climax of the book — a legendary rescue attempt in a setting so exotic that it reaches into the realm of fantasy.
Orito’s kidnapping and subsequent travails are undoubtedly the most gripping parts of the group and I was annoyed when the novel would shift from her captivity to Jacob’s moral nosebleeds about keeping the books in a corrupt business. Even a war breaking out bored me because I was impatient to get back to Orito and the disturbing secrets in the prison nunnery. Nonetheless, all the elements mesh into an impressive historical epic that examines tensions between the East and West, imperialism and democracy, science and superstition and the emerging international stage.