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?

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