Monday, November 1, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Set in Japan in the late 1700's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet follows the life, trials and troubles of Jacob DeZoet, a Dutch clerk. DeZoet travels to Japan as a financial clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company at the request of his fiance's father. What DeZoet believes to be a five year commitment that will provide him with financial security in actuality becomes a much longer stay.

The story line tells of DeZoet's problems with disaffected workers, thieving supervisors and a Japanese culture as far different from his Dutch upbringing as could possibly be.

Well written, the story meanders through DeZoet's trials with the company and his forbidden love for a Japanese woman. What I couldn't understand was the middle third of the book. DeZoet falls in love with a Japanese woman, a mid-wife, who is studying with the Dutch colony's doctor. Before he can take any action on his feelings she is sent to a nunnery attached to a local lord's monastery as payment for her father's debts. The nuns are all physically disfigured in some way.

At this point the book veers off into the secret world of the monastery. The nuns are there to serve the monks who "engift" them with children. The infants are removed from the mothers and apparently adopted out to families with whom the children will have a better life. When an initiate at the monastery runs away with a copy of the 13 rules for the monks, everything changes for DeZoet. Jacob winds up with a copy of the scroll and the reality of what the monks are doing becomes readily apparent. At this point, the story line veers again.

A disgraced former Dutch worker appears with a British frigate in an attempt to takeover the Dutch trading post and humiliate DeZoet. British war with Japan seems likely, but no. After firing on the Dutch settlement and the surrounding Japanese area the British ship suddenly leaves.

The last 30 pages of the book rush through approximately the last 15 years of DeZoet's life. While all the story lines are tied off, some more completely than others, I couldn't help feeling that I missed something in the book. Some parts of the book are beautifully written. You can see the mists rising on the mountains or feel the heat of the ship's hold. But the story line lurched at the end.

That said the book is worth the read. It lays out European-Japanese trade at the time and is a good study of of traditional Japanese customs and practices.

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