Nuanced Honesty

Nuanced Honesty

The book begins with an elaborately described stillbirth. At least that’s what we think. David Mitchell introduces himself through a baby’s “howl at Life”, surprise number one. The book concludes with a death. It recounts the life and times of Jacob De Zoet, a red-haired Dutchman who doesn’t fit into the scheme of his surroundings.

It’s the fag end of the 18th century, and a clutch of Dutch traders of the “United East Indian Company” are hanging on to their jobs in the walled island of Dejima. This is gateway to the port of Nagasaki, and beyond that is the forbidden nation of Japan, closed to the world.

The time is precarious, at the cusp of startling changes, and Jacob is here to earn enough money in order to be able to marry his sweetheart Anna in about five years. In a claustrophobic world populated by Company officers, cargo men, carpenters, cooks, smugglers, and Japanese concubines, interpreters and Government officials, Jacob loses his peace to Miss Orito Aibagawa, Japanese apprentice to the crusty, musical Dr Marinus.

It’s she who was responsible for the miracle birth-howl in the beginning, delivering alive the magistrate’s son, earning therefore her privileged position. With disfigured face, eastern gentleness and the efficiency of a professional midwife, she stirs enough emotion in the number-crunching red head to make him yearn for more sighting of her. The book is divided into sections.   
 
The first chronicles Jacob’s arrival in Dejima as protégé clerk of the “incorruptible” Chief Resident Vorstenbosch. They herald a heroic mission sworn to sweep away the pernicious cobwebs of corruption in the trading post. It introduces him and us to a motley gathering of coarse and colourful adventurers, each of whom underlines Jacob’s difference. They are cussing, cussed, immoral and crude. He is honest, sensitive, religious and nuanced.

The first part sparks the attraction to Orito, so strong that we are as eager as the young Dutchman for their trysts to happen. It’s a hands-off relationship that touches many emotions, from acute longing to terrible embarrassment. To add to the pain, there is a third corner of the triangle, a Japanese interpreter who can’t have her either.

At the end of this part, Jacob lands on terra firma with a firm thud. The incorruptible has inhumanly shown its human colours, leaving the young clerk gasping with indignation. He loses his position, descending so low that he becomes an object of ridicule. “I am a righteous man, he thinks, but see what righteousness has done.”

Even worse, he is powerless to help the samurai’s daughter, the gentle Orito, and the door slams shut between them as if forever. This is a Japan that’s closed itself to the world. The Dutch traders are permitted only in the walled island, under strict conditions. They cannot bring any of their religious paraphernalia with them. It’s against this background that our European red-headed clerk loses his heart to the Japanese midwife.

The second part gets eerie with Orito being secreted in a mountain-top shrine presided over by the Abbot Enomoto. He and his adherents sexually exploit the women under their care and also offer their offspring as sacrificial offerings to ensure eternal life for themselves. From the rambunctious trading post we’ve just left behind to the evil machinations of the head of a macabre monastery, Mitchell changes track and cultural milieu and reaches the core of pain and violence (“murdering your ‘harvested gifts’ to ‘distil their souls’”— “And then bottling them, like perfume, and ‘imbibing’ them, like medicine, and cheating death,” the interpreter Uzaemon accuses the Abbot, referring to his rituals for immortality).

The third part begins with a chapter that’s told, interestingly, in the first person, the only such instance in the book, the inner voice of a slave. In this section, the English make their appearance as traders, and the Dutch company workers are informed by their current deputy chief that “our employer and paymaster is bankrupt”, and that “since January the first we've been working for a phantom”.

And, finally, there are two last parts that are so tiny and yet pack so much detail and incident to round off the stories thrown up in the book that it is Mitchell’s artistry, his light brushstrokes of emotion and sensitivity that keep us rivetted till the end. 

This is David Mitchell’s biggest experiment yet in the sense that he has given himself a vast canvas to play around with. He speaks in many tongues, and suddenly dives into the thoughts and conjectures of his characters in the midst of some careful description or detailing.

He runs around in circles, he changes mood and track and even storyline, and keeps us with him solely because of the enthusiasm he invests in his words. There are moments when we tire of the details, the random thoughts of random characters, the veering off into irrelevant territory. It’s a big book, and the fact that we’re still holding on, waiting to see what else he’s got in store for us is a measure of the author’s wizardry and his protagonists’ drawn-out charm.

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