Tag: Japan

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Posted January 17, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 10 Comments

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David MitchellTitle: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Goodreads)
Author: David Mitchell
Published: Sceptre, 2010
Pages: 469
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells the story of the Dutch East India Company’s trading post off of Nagasaki in 1977. Japan has been cut off from the rest of the world and the only outside influence was a small man-made island known as Dejima. Originally built by Portuguese traders, this island was walled off and used by the Dutch as a trading post from 1641 until 1853. This novel follows the story of Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who has been sent to Dejima to uncover any evidence of corruption form the previous Chief Resident of this trading post.

My first attempt with David Mitchell was Cloud Atlas which probably was a terrible starting point; I had a lot of problems with the fragmented storyline. I know that Cloud Atlas was an experimental piece of post-modern fiction but for me it felt like a writing exercise to see what genres he was able to write in. With a little push, I was convinced to try The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is a straight forward historical fiction novel that would allow me to discover Mitchell as a writer but try anything experimental again. I think if I read this book first, I would have gained an appreciation for this author and been more willing to see what he can do when he played around with genres.

This novel can be broken into two parts. The first half of the book establishes the world; we learn about the history of the Dutch East India Company, Japan and the island of Dejima. Mitchell spends a lot of time building characters and painting beautiful scenery. This is a nice slow-paced section that just explores the history and the culture clash between Japan and the Dutch; it also allows the reader to meet some of the characters. Then the book changes tone completely and everything becomes fast paced and thrilling which I won’t get into as this is where the bulk of the plot happens and I am not willing to give spoilers.

While this book does deal with the culture clash, it also looks at love and the human condition.  Jacob de Zoet falls in love with a Japanese midwife, Orito and the plot does focuses a lot around this affection. Orito was a great heroine in this book. She pushes to learn how to be a midwife, in a time and place where the term midwife would have been unheard of. She is this strong willed and intelligent woman that just stole the show for me. I did struggle a little with Jacob de Zoet, he was this incorruptible man working on a trading post full of corruption. He just felt so good and kind, almost to the point of being fake. His prudishness and piety sometimes rubbed me the wrong way; as most people know. I do like characters that are deeply flawed so Jacob came across as too perfect. Having said that, I think this (somewhat) perfect protagonist was utilised well within the novel and helped Mitchell explore the themes around the human condition.

One thing I was curious about that I felt wasn’t explored enough was the language barrier between the Japanese and the Dutch. There was a great deal of exploration with the differences in cultures and how they clashed but when it came to language it was brushed over. There is so much there that was mentioned that I wanted more information about, for example when it came to the translators. The translators had the power to translate Japanese to Dutch and the opportunities for corruption was mentioned briefly and I would have loved to see these ideas explored more.

David Mitchell seems to have a keen interest in Japanese culture and the human condition, I felt like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was able to explore these topics far better than I think Cloud Atlas did. I am not trying to rip apart Cloud Atlas (I may re-read it one day), I just felt the emotions and character development were missing from that novel. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has given me the confidence to try more books by David Mitchell and I am not sure what I will look at next but I am curious. If anyone wants to recommend me another Mitchell book, maybe something with a flawed character, please let me know.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Posted November 10, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary, Magical Realism / 7 Comments

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth OzekiTitle: A Tale for the Time Being (Goodreads)
Author: Ruth Ozeki
Published: Text, 2013
Pages: 422
Genres: Contemporary, Magical Realism
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Sixteen year old Nao lives in Tokyo and has decided to take her own life. Her life isn’t great, being bullied in school, her parents are depressed but before she ends her misery she has one task to complete. She wants to document the life of her great-grandmother Jiko. She writes a diary to tell the story of her life. On the Pacific coast of Canada, a few months after the tsunami that hits Japan, Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach, inside there was a diary.

Starting with the story of Nao, A Tale for the Time Being was a fascinating look at the Japanese modern culture with references to pop-culture. It made me want to read more books like this; the Japanese culture, while similar is very different and unusual. The only problem with Nao was the fact I didn’t believe she was a struggling teenage girl, all references to being bullied or having a hard life seem to come across as non-issues. I think if someone is struggling to the point of suicide then these issues would be a major focus and never downplayed. This really became the underlining issue with this novel.

I expected this to be brutal and dark but it felt like it wasn’t taken seriously in the effort to make the book light hearted and humorous. The writing was beautiful but I felt it was too flowery and at times preachy. Ruth Ozeki is not just a novelist; she is also a Zen Buddhist priest. Now I have nothing against Buddhism and I think we need religious equality for all people but for some reason this felt heavy. I like books that teach me something I don’t know and A Tale for the Time Being does just that but I felt like it overdid this. I get that Ozeki is passionate about Zen Buddhism, it really showed, there is nothing wrong with that, just a little priggish.

As for the other major character (Ruth), which I couldn’t see as anything else but the author was rather dull in caparison. Nao’s story was fascinating, learning about Jiko was interesting but Ruth felt full of self-pity and two dimensional. I found myself wanting to skip over her story and return to Nao. Personally I think the Ruth character played no real part in the novel and cutting her chapters out completely would have worked just as well.

While the Zen Buddhist element did feel preachy the major downfalls were the believability of Nao’s struggle and Ruth. This is just too light and whimsical for me this really became a distraction from the themes and ideas the novel was trying to achieve. There was so much going for this but the negatives started to outweigh the positives. I must be one of the few that thought this novel wasn’t amazing.