Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Having rashly offered to write up our very enjoyable October discussion, I'm now attempting to come up with the goods. Eight (or nine?) of us gathered and enjoyed a literary evening followed by yummy chocolate cake. Kate was so anxious not to miss anything that she even rushed back from Cairo in time. Is that a record?
As you'd expect, our responses to the book varied. At least three of those who finished it had found it really enjoyable. This conclusion was tempered by the confession that the previously studied David Mitchell novel, Cloud atlas had been enjoyed at the time too, except no-one seemed to remember what it had been about. This fate couldn't befall Thousand autumns though! We mostly agreed that it had been a vivid, gripping experience being taken back to Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate and stranded with the Dutch East India Company representatives on Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour, then taken up to a mysterious and sinister mountain shrine before finding ourselves on the deck of an English Man-of-War, creating havoc for all concerned.
Some of us found the cast of thousands hard to follow (and one of us was even driven to spreadsheet them all in her eagerness to keep up with the plot), but we agreed that the diverse characters were cleverly and engagingly created, so that we found ourselves in their heads and caring about them, and a couple of us had been moved to tears at different moments of the book.
There was the impression that a great deal of research and experience of Japanese culture was behind the well sustained authenticity of the world created, the invisible line between history and fiction, and we thought the novel was well paced and structured, with a satisfying, rather than anti-climactic ending.
We were impressed with the beauty of the language used and examples of the telling use of symbolism were discussed. The epic scope of the book was compared with Shogun, and the gradually revealed secrets of the shrine recalled The Name of the rose. Timeless themes were identified and discussed.
The comment was made that parts of the book were quite distressing and confronting. A more petty criticism raised was the misuse of the word "shall" by every character of every culture in the book, but nobody else agreed with me about that!
We thought the book would make a good movie, and speculated that the author had probably thought of that. However, on the basis of our discussion, a couple of us who hadn't finished the book decided not to wait for the movie but to get back into it forthwith.
Finally, I don't think even the fastidious Japanese could have queried the elegance of the tea sets that came with our yummy supper. Thanks Janet!


  1. Great report of our discussion Sue B! I'm not sure that there's much more to add except that I did wonder whether there was a little too much research on show, but that's being a bit churlish I think.

  2. How's that! I found out how to post, and even how to comment! Please add to/correct/contradict the above as appropriate, since, for some reason, I mainly remember what I thought myself :) despite having been impressed and enlightened by all your points at the time. I won't brook any argument about the supper though!

  3. Well done ... I was about to email you to see if you wanted help. I have edited it to add Labels (see under your name at the end of the post) and Hyperlinks.

  4. Gosh Sue T. That was quick! And yes, we commented on *quickly checks text* the start of Chapter 39 where, in one stunning two page paragraph, it's as though he spills out all the information he had gleaned but hadn't been able to fit in yet about Japanese life at the time. I don't agree that it's actually too much though. I thought that was one of the best paragraphs in the book.

  5. Sue and Sue: terrific comments, and beautifully expressed Sue B. I think the fantastic picture of the realities of the lives of European seafarers, press-ganged or escaping from some other reality were all quite moving and often humourous to read. And the picture of Japanese life and environment: the place of honour and integrity were thoughtfully posed. I also liked the comments on language and translations as a metaphor for human relations and the subtleties of negotiation and power play... It is a book to keep dipping into for little treasures. I am disappointed you haven't added your fabulous spreadsheet of characters Sue. I would have loved to use them while reading the book.

  6. Thanks for the hyperlinks Sue, and thanks both Sue and Kate for rounding out the coverage of the discussion. Maybe if I ever master hyperlinks I'll work out how to link to my spreadsheet as well Kate, though it was kind of you to ask :) Sue T. found one somewhere on the web I think too. The book really needs a character list - maybe next edition.

  7. Hyperlinks are easy Sue - there's an icon/tool (I think it's just called "link") for it in the page you create your post in. You click on that and then you just add the link address into the pop-up window. BUT I think you can only hyperlink to a web address which is not where your spreadsheet is unfortunately.


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