Orientalism Alive and Well: David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetI couldn’t wait to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The novel is about nearly everything I enjoy reading and writing about: Japan. The late 18th century. The early 19th century. Sailing ships. Encounters between East and West. It even includes a few references to my own pet subject, the La Pérouse expedition.

Well, now I’ve read it, and I’m so sorry to say this because it makes me look like the girl at the party who sits in the corner and scowls at all the people having fun, but I have some serious gripes with this book.

There were things I admired, of course. Mitchell’s recreation of the tiny island of Dejima, which for centuries was the only point of contact between Japan and the outside world, is vivid and compelling. He ably manages a huge cast of characters of different ages, nationalities, occupations, and class. The prose can be gorgeous and surprising. And the book is exciting: I stayed up altogether too late several nights in a row to finish it.

I particularly admired the devil-may-care way in which Mitchell mixes things up. I kept finding myself saying, “Wait—you’re allowed to do that?” Like having a relatively conventional rotating third-person perspective suddenly veer into first person for the space of one chapter. Or the long descriptive paragraph that I realized, about halfway through, was composed of rhymed couplets. Or unapologetically altering known historical facts to serve the story.

I didn’t always like these moves, but I liked that he made them, if that makes sense. A rather rule-bound party pooper like me can learn a lot from a writer like this.

So what was the problem? Well, I’ll tell you, but major spoilers are ahead, so you should stop reading if you don’t want the book “spoiled.”

Dejima Island in Nagasaki Bay, Siebold
Dejima Island in Nagasaki Bay, from Siebold, "Nippon" (Wikimedia Commons)


To wit: Much of the novel’s middle takes place at Mount Shiranui Shrine, a secretive (and, thank God, fictional) Shinto shrine run by the powerful Lord Abbot Enomoto. The eponymous Jacob de Zoet’s love interest, a Japanese midwife named Orito, is forced to enter the shrine’s nunnery against her will. Would-be lovers separated by the intractable forces of money and cultural expectations and family disapproval: so far, so good, right?

But then we learn that the nuns are forced to sleep with the monks at the shrine, and suddenly we’re in Handmaid’s Tale land. Even the language used to describe this arrangement—the nuns, who are kept hooded during these encounters with their “engifters” (the monks), believe their acquiescence pleases a fertility goddess who then keeps the land and water around the shrine teeming with crops and fish—is reminiscent of Atwood’s tale of out-of-control fundamentalists misusing the Bible to justify sexual predation.

I was disappointed. The novel was already filled with compelling and believable tension. Would the Japanese inspectors on Dejima find Jacob’s contraband Psalter? Would he be able to outwit his venal Dutch compatriots? When was he going to realize that his friend Ogawa Uzaemon was also in love with Orito—and she with him? The introduction of a religious institution committed to ritualized, coercive sex seemed—well, outlandish and unnecessary.

And then it got worse.

For it turns out the whole point of these mandatory trysts at Mount Shiranui is to produce babies who are then taken away from the mothers. The nuns believe their children have been adopted by good families, but no — the babies are drowned by the monks (their biological fathers), who distill from their victims’ bodies an “oil of souls” they imbibe in the belief that it confers immortality.

Creepy sex. Infanticide. Cannibalism. Seriously?

Now I wasn’t just disappointed. I was offended. And depressed.

It’s been almost three hundred years since Robinson Crusoe “saved” Friday from cannibals and cannibalism, yet “Occidental” writers are still trafficking in the same old tropes about the “Other” and the “Orient.” Professor Said must be rolling in his grave.

When this storyline first emerged, I read on in the hopes that Mitchell was about to pull a Northanger Abbey-style switcheroo on us. How great would it be if Jacob de Zoet—and the reader—developed all these Gothic suspicions about goings-on at Mount Shiranui, only to discover, like Catherine Morland, that it was nothing more than his own—and the reader’s—overwrought imagination?

But alas, nothing that cool happens. Instead, when Jacob ends up with custody of the one document that proves what’s going on up on the mountain, the novel comes perilously close to turning into one of those tiresome “white Messiah” stories.

In Mitchell’s defense, he does throw over some of the most typical conventions of that genre. The eponymous white protagonist doesn’t get to play the romantic hero; instead, it’s Jacob’s friend Uzaemon who tries to rescue Orito from the shrine, although he dies ignominiously in the attempt. As it happens—and I did like this—Orito doesn’t need rescuing by men. Using her midwifery skills to negotiate with her captors, she secures a less odious, compulsory-sex-free captivity for herself. And in the end, it’s not Jacob who takes down the Lord Abbot and his shrine of horrors, but the local magistrate, to whom Jacob has entrusted the incriminating document.

Okay, so at least we don’t have to suffer flashbacks of Tom Cruise charging up the mountain, á la Last Samurai, brandishing the sword he’s mastered after only a few days of training, ready to save the benighted Japanese from themselves.

But still. Why is it that the old woman who first raises the alarm about Mount Shiranui is also a secret Christian? I loved all the details about this woman’s clandestine religious observances. But it also suggested that in this barbarous and closed country, only a Christian would have had the moral clarity and courage to risk her life to fight injustice. This idea is reinforced by the doomed Uzaemon, whose final thoughts reveal regret that he’d never asked Jacob about his religion.

Not that Mitchell suggests that Europeans are more moral or less prone to depravity than the Japanese. Or does he? Many of the European characters are greedy, corrupt, violent, racist, debauched. But none of them are cannibalistic, homicidal rapists with delusions of immortality. And none is as purely and inhumanly evil as the Lord Abbot, whose head is described at one point as “a skull wrapped in skin.” The Europeans, for all their manifold failings, are human. The really outré abominations are reserved for the “Orientals” to indulge.

Maybe I’m overreacting. I’ll admit I can get a little sensitive about the whole Japan thing. But what if, instead of being set in Japan, Mitchell’s novel had been set in 18th-century Europe? And the bizarre sex-and-dead-babies thing were happening at a synagogue instead of a Shinto shrine? And the villains were Jewish instead of Japanese? Would I be overreacting then?

As a writer and a writing teacher, I’ve argued passionately against the ultra-PC notion that writers don’t have the “right” to depict people of a different ethnicity or religion or gender from themselves. I, for one, do not wish to be constrained to writing only about women or Americans or people of mixed race or even party poopers.

But experiences like this one discourage me extremely. Because this is not an isolated case. When I read a piece of fiction by a white writer about Japan or the Japanese, more often than not I’m dismayed by its casual exoticizing or stereotyping of that culture and its people. (Don’t even get me started on the absurd, fantastical Mr. Ozu in Muriel Barbery’s over-hyped Elegance of the Hedgehog. It’s the 21st century, for God’s sake, and we still haven’t gotten past the inscrutable Oriental?)

David Mitchell, Cloud AtlasPerversely, I responded to my disappointment with 1000 Autumns by picking up Mitchell’s previous novel, Cloud Atlas. I’m halfway through and, so far, loving its genre-bending hijinks. When cannibalism appeared on the very first page, all my hackles went up. But here the assumptions about cannibalistic practices among South Seas natives are placed squarely and believably within the mind of a 19th-century character. It’s not like the writer is making those assumptions, right? Right?

31 thoughts on “Orientalism Alive and Well: David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”

  1. This has long been exactly my complaint about English language writing set in Africa. I took up the books of V.S. Naipaul eagerly before Naipaul received the Nobel. What dismay to encounter that Conradian depiction of The African as elusive, illogical savage whose very presence introduces an air of danger; The African as Other, as not quite human, as harboring savagery. As structurally flawed as I felt Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was (and how I fantasized editing it!) I so deeply appreciated her picture of African history and humanity, the range of African characters in the book and the absolute individualism among them. That was enough to clarify how unnecessary and ignorant and misguided were the missionaries and the colonizers. The family of missionaries that the book follows were humbled and utterly changed by their experiences.

    I don’t see your reaction as at all oversensitive. I think it’s spot on.

  2. Naomi, I understand your complaint implicitly. Though I think the roots go deep. Very deep. The core of the problem in my opinion is that Americans are … Americans. They’re not Japanese, French, Moroccan, or anything else. At least not if they grew up in America. They see things from an American perspective, and interpret things with American filters firmly in place. True there are a rare few who venture outside the borders of the 50 states, and a rarer few who learn to interact comfortably completely immersed in another culture. But they are so rare that if they were to write a book there wouldn’t be enough people appreciating it for the book to ever sell. Which is to say that it seems that your complaint ultimately boils down to not liking what it means to be American. Can’t disagree with you, mind you, though I think a fully parallel complaint could be raised about what it means to be Japanese. Or Russian. Or Brazilian. Or…. True it would be nice if people worldwide could become multi-cultural and have true, deep understanding of other cultures besides the one they grew up in. Sadly, I don’t see that that’s ever going to happen. Which leaves you and me in the fringes.

  3. Thanks for reading, Chris! I don’t know that it’s Americanism that’s the problem, though. For one thing, Mitchell isn’t an American: he’s English. I think it’s a broader Eurocentrism at work. But I’m sure if I examined, say, Japanese views of the West, I’d find similarly distressing stereotyping, demonizing, oversimplification, etc., going on. You’re right that true understanding of others is hard to come by (and I don’t pretend to possess it myself).

  4. Thank you for your most excellent review. You hit everything that was eating at me about this book, and which, in my peanut gallery opinion, has not been sufficiently nit-picked in main stream reviews. I loved Cloud Atlas, and although 1000 Autumns has many good points and was a fun read, I felt like I had slipped into a Dan Brown novel. Not why I picked up this book! I don’t understand the raves for it at all.
    Most cultures are somewhat self-o-centric, but individuals routine transcend their cultures, and we certainly expect that of our thinkers and writers. Is writing that panders to x-ocentricism ever deserving of literary accolades as this book has received? I feel like Mitchell cheated himself first of all.

  5. Thank you for your excellent thoughtful analysis. This novel was disappointing and, as you mentioned, quite depressing regarding the nunnery and with a contrived Christians save the day solution. Mary Jo

  6. This is a great post! I’m currently writing an essay on Orientalism and David Mitchell, and this article has been really useful. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said. Thank you!

  7. To me this book wasn’t so much pro-Western as pro-Christian. And although I am not religious myself, I found it refreshing to see Christianity used as a positive theme, without irony or skepticism. But in a way, it was like finally listening to the lyrics of a catchy song and realizing — Hey, this is a Christian song.

    While reading, I felt some of the same things you mentioned, but for me it was a small mark against what was otherwise a great book. (Another small mark was his way of attributing dialog. He’d have long clauses in the middle of a character’s sentence, and I feel he sacrificed clarity for style.)

    As for the evil order of monks, I liked that part. It gave the book a sort of potboiler feeling, though, that perhaps put it below the threshold for a literary work.

  8. Naomi,

    I really appreciated your review. Having finished Cloud Atlas and reading through Ghostwritten, I was interested in picking up 1000 Autumns. I do agree that there tends to be an Othering in Mitchell’s novels, but one that he consistently turns on its head, especially in the first two novels I’ve read by him. He’s even said in interviews that cannibalism is more of something that he cannot write past, and, as it happens, it pops up everywhere in his novels. In that same interview, though, he talks about an ethical relativism that I think speaks to his decision to include taboo topics that snag our attention and ask us to question what does ethics in fact entail. At any rate, disappointing to hear that you didn’t like it, but thank you for your excellent review. It was a pleasure to stumble upon it on the internet.

    Marc

    1. Hi, Marc. Thanks for reading & leaving such a thoughtful response. I should emphasize what I hope is clear in my post, which is that I really admire this writer & also admire a lot — a LOT — about this particular novel. I was just disappointed by what seemed an “othering” here that really didn’t get turned on its head. And I’ve been surprised by how many people have continued to find this little blog post of mine–and often through search strings like “cannibalism in Jacob de Zoet was that true” or “shiranui shrine cannibalism real?” Thanks again for commenting & keeping the discussion going.

  9. The “thousand autumns” of the title, the imprisonment and infanticide, these suggest a book based on the Shinto creation myth, which is quite misogynistic. Yet it is the founding myth of the Japanese.

    David Mitchell isn’t inventing this stuff. He’s illustrating the xenophobic mentality of the Endo period through the mythical narrative by which the xenophobia was derived.

    1. This is an interesting perspective. I don’t know much about Japanese creation myths so can’t comment on what you say about them, but my quibbles with the novel didn’t have to do with his depiction of Edo-period xenophobia, which seemed, to the extent I can judge such things, to be spot-on. My complaint is about the over-the-top goings-on at the Shiranui Shrine. Even if you’re right in suggesting they are somehow rooted in Shinto myth, they are certainly “invented” for the historical setting of the novel, and for all I admired about the novel, I did not admire that.

  10. As for cannibalism. Cloud Atlas establishes cannibalism as a motif for prophetic vision. The symbol of the tooth serves first as a remnant of a spiritual culture, but the remains are rendered a commodity, a status symbol.

    It seemed to me that Mitchell was debasing the commandeering of his life’s work by pretentious consumers. The fascination is with the compulsion to write, not gore.

    In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell uses cannibalism to establish a critical mythological analogue. The novel is, in part, a progression through the Samsara cycle.

    Even the much older Shinto and Tibetan myths were intended as metaphors.

  11. One final comment.

    It is hard for me to believe Mitchell is establishing the superiority European culture. His emphasis is on a distinctly Japanese narrative, the descent of Izanagi into the underworld. This myth posits death as a corruption of the living and ends with the quarantine/abandonment of Izanagi’s lover within the underworld. The woman corrupted becomes the embodiment of death; her entombment, the salvation of the living. I’ve not completed the book, but these Japanese themes seem very clear.

    The mountain imprisonment reflects the underworld. Like the Izanagi narrative, infanticide is offered as a punishment for bringing about the midwife’s corruption. The Shinto myth addresses the corruption of death in the world of the living; however, Mitchell is also describing the death of insular Japan. The myth and history are interwoven.

    Mitchell has rendered this Eastern myth in the surrealistic fashion of McCarthy’s gnostic narrative, Blood Meridian. Think of it as a Japanese rendering of the Inferno. Again the elements you see as debasements—like the infanticide—are the most Japanese.

    I’m not defending the gore of the narrative, but the book seems like an homage to the original Shinto culture. My wife was pregnant when I purchased the book. I tried to start the book, but I found the introduction too unsettling. But these miscarriages are part of the Shinto creation myth. I’m trying to establish that the cosmology of Japan is the source of these disturbing elements, and Mitchell has reminded true to the source.

  12. I think the novel breaks from the historical setting and enters a mythical setting when Jacob leaves Dejima. At this point Jacob has entered the underworld.

    A similar mountain is found in Lowery’s Under The Volcano, also a description of a semi-fantastic hell.

    1. Thanks for all of your comments. Although I have to confess I don’t understand everything you’ve said, I appreciate your taking the time to keep this conversation going. For my part, if Mitchell is reenacting Japanese Shinto myths or the Samsara cycle or whatever, that’s very clever & cool, but still doesn’t really justify what strikes me as a very “othering” and dehumanizing depiction of certain characters in the book. Is it necessary to understand this mythic context you claim for the book in order to appreciate this part of the story (or at least not be offended by it)? How many even educated & savvy readers would be able to see this? I don’t think writers are obligated to write “down” to their readers, but if a certain cultural context is necessary to avoid offense, should that context be so very obscure? My two cents. It’s now been several years since I read the book & wrote this post, so I’m having trouble responding with a lot of specificity. Thanks again for your contributions.

  13. “Is it necessary to understand this mythic context you claim for the book in order to appreciate this part of the story”

    Corruption and othering are the central themes of both the myth and Mitchell’s novel. Since a Shinto cult is invoked in the story, I didn’t find the relevance of the myth to be that obscure.

    I’m not looking for converts, but Mitchell’s setting, plot and stylistic choices were clearly designed to illustrate the Shinto themes. I figured the book would make more sense—and be far more enjoyable—if the antiquity and emphasis of the narrative were better understood.

    Also, what would become of our culture if history were censured in accordance to modern standards? We would become an unanchored and self-erasing society, the cult of modern man, and the measures of our progress would cease to exist.

  14. I’m so happy to have read this. I am in large agreement. This has been the most difficult of mitchell’s books to read. Which is weird because the other books are just so good.

    Many things, even the entirely improbable romance between the two principle characters, veer dangerously into fan fiction territory. The description of jacob’s attraction to orito is also somewhat irksome.

  15. It’s interesting to read your article in context with Mitchell’s later books, which take place in the same universe and expand the “cannibalism” themes to European culture. I’m curious if you’ve read The Bone Clocks, which acts like this book’s sequel in many ways, and whether it changed your read of Thousand Autumns in context. I appreciated getting your read on Thousand Autumns, since I discovered the books in a different order (Bone Clocks first) so I was thinking of the more gruesome themes as a European problem and was thinking, “My goodness, this happened in Japan TOO?”

  16. I ve just finished reading 1000 Autumns. If I take your point of view, I don t see how any Englishman could ever write an fictional story containing some historical details, set in Japan or ‘Oriental’ place, WITHOUT indulging in ‘Orientalism’. In your opinion an acceptable story cannot contain a white protagonist-hero, cannot contain fictional details about a murderous Japanese abbot and must have a woman protagonist who is very independent, solving all her problems by herself.

    1. Hi, Maarten, and thanks for reading my piece on “Thousand Autumns.” You’ve fundamentally misunderstood my words, however. It is not my point of view that an Englishman (or any other white writer) cannot take on Japanese or Asian (or any other) characters or settings. And it’s certainly not my opinion that such a story can’t have a white protagonist or can’t include an evil Japanese abbot or must have an independent female character. I just never said any of that. In fact, I went to some pains to not say those things. Perhaps you could reread my post and see what I actually did say. I quite admire David Mitchell & even this flawed novel, something I also make quite clear. I was disappointed by his handling of certain characters and situations in the book, in particular the inclusion of cannibalism, which I believe resorts to old & unfortunate racial tropes. The fact that so many people have over the years found their way to this blog post by Googling some form of “1000 Autumns Jacob de Zoet Japanese cannibalism is it true” has tended to validate my gut sense when I read the book that someone, even a fan of the writer, needed to say something about it. Writers can write whatever they please, of course. All writers. Even Englishmen. But that doesn’t place one above criticism.

      1. Exactly, Naomi. I believe cannibalism was in fact a very brief and early phase in cultures around the world for complex reasons related to the development of increasingly complex societies and porto-religions (see Robert N. Bellha, Religion in Human Evolution, published in 2011), but that is not at all what this is about. And in historical fiction…well. I think enough people think bizarre things about other cultures to take the time to quibble about this. We clearly are NOT past lying about some group or other more or less eating babies even here in the US.

        I also liked the book generally but the second half had me in Dan Brown land.

      2. Thanks, Cheryl. I’m actually really surprised that this old post of mine keeps getting comments! It speaks, to some extent, to David Mitchell’s stature and to the enduring appeal of this particular novel. People are understandably defensive when something they appreciate is raked over the coals. I agree that the second half did venture into “Dan Brown land,” as you say.

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