Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How Did Our Book Club Discussion of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet Go? And What's Coming Up Next?

I don't consider myself a fan of historical fiction, but I guess I'm committed to reading the best things being written in the genre.  First the in-store book club delved into Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, and just several months later we're plowing through David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Unlike the former, Mitchell's novel of a Dutch trading post on the edge of Japan circa 1800 does not have to hew to specific facts about specific people. Mitchell notes in this essay in The Telegraph that the novel was inspired by an inadvertent visit to Dejima, the ruins of the Dutch East India Cmpany's warehouse.  That said, he still chose to hew to the traditions of historical fiction, such as having the characters speak in "bygonese."  Read more here.

I got many warnings that I would need to start Mitchell's novel early, or I would come to the discussion without having finished.  I decided to use my standard trick for getting books read without interruption--a good long walk.  In this case, I walked from Bay View to Cudahy. I got a little bummed, as I passed one huge Milwaukee-area industrial corporation after another that was recently acquired, moving control outside of our market.  First Ladish (to Allegheny) and then Vilter (to Emerson).  Would I make it all the way to Bucyrus (sold to Caterpillar) in South Milwaukee or would I turn around after buying some buttons at Packard Plaza? And once I got on the bus, would our driver pretty much shut down the route for a half hour because he didn't like two of the passengers, and yet at the same time refuse to kick them off? 

I can't really complain. It just gave me more time to read.  And the huge industrial complexes did put me in mind of Dejima, especially on a Sunday, when they were all pretty much abandoned. 

You know what the novel's about, right? A Dutch clerk (De Zoet) is sent to Dejima, the Dutch trading outpost in Japan that is run through Batavia (Jakarta), the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, to make his fortune and return to his beloved.  Ostensibly told to  rout corruption that is said to be rampant, it turns out that corruption, in the eye of the beholder, turns out to be "rightful take." But an equally big problem is that his eye turns to a midwife, Aibagawa Orito (or Orito Aibagawa, depending on who is referencing the character), which is a no no for a woman of her rank.  Can't he just settle for a prostitute like the rest of the foreigners? Despite a disfiguring mark on her face, Orito seems to be quite popular.  He has a rival for her affections in his translator Uzaemon, and a warlord, Lord Abbott Enomoto, has designs on her for his shrine. As this is all happening, the British make moves to take over the Dutch trading gig at Dejma and war brews.

The group almost unilaterally loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with only two people of even mixed minds.  It showed that even with a top-notch novel filled with subtext and historical connections and human rights violations (we love those), the conversation lags a bit when there is little disagreement.  Several folks mentioned that they liked the two strong female characters (Orito and Otane) and would have like a tiny bit more focus on several of the other women involved, such as a wife or concubine. As Ann said, we're talking about a man's world here, so what can I expect?

All agreed that the first part of the book was a little slower.  I never mind a novel that needs time to set up the plot, and its not unusual for this to be 100-200 pages. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times remarked on the structure of the novel being a three-part composition. I thought it more akin to a roller coaster, with a long climb, a quick but exciting ride filled with drops, and then a pleasant series of dips and turns before pulling into the station.  That means I liked part two the best.  On the other hand, several other attendees really enjoyed the ship maneuvers, with a good deal of fascination for Penhaligon, the British captain.

But what of this second section?  There's an almost Fu Manchu quality to the over-the-top melodrama of the shrine, as noted by Ron Charles in The Washington Post. That's not a complaint, really, but a compliment.  Your response may depend on whether or not you really believe Lord Abbot Enomoto is as old as he says he is.  And we were all fascinated when Suzanne noted the shrines parallels to the Christian church and the stories that are part of it. 

There was some talk of the culture of the Netherlands, why they became traders, and how did they succeed, and then fail, in their colonial aspirations?  I thought it was interesting that the last Dutch-themed book club book we read, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which also dealt with its colonial past, but from a post-colonial perspective.  Plus there was cricket.

Suzanne had read all of David Mitchell's published novels (and seemed like she would be quite excited about reading his unpublishable ones too) so we had a discussion about how De Zoet fit into his oeuvre. I had read that this novel was a big change from his other work, but Suzanne noted that all of his novels are very different from each other. And while the focus in the reviews has sometimes been the turning away from pyrotechnics of his earlier novels, Black Swan Green is a straightforward autobiographical novel, though as Alexander Linklater notes in the Guardian, it does have textual references to the earlier novels. 

We tried to get Gloria to speak from California but the speaker on a cell phone is pretty bad, plus she was at a market, plus we had Alan Heathcock reading in the back of the store. Carolyn made a motion to ban rereading books, because everyone seems to notice more flaws the second time around.

I was bad and should have taken more notes. I will end with one of the questions in the reader's guide (the multiple choice answers are mine, and bely my confusion with the question and how it would relate to the book discussion). 
"If you were to land in Dejima in 1799, what would be the first thing you would do?"
a. Steal some copper.
b. Visit a courtesan.
c. Join what I'm told is a very nice shrine.
d. Start a naval battle.
Your choice!

Want to have a spirited chat with a bunch of readers who, as noted by one of the attendees, have a dearth of graduate degrees that offer us any credibility?  Join us for a the in-store lit group on the first Monday of each month at 7 pm.  Except for two of the next three meetings, when holidays interfere. Due to July 4th and Labor Day being first Mondays, we have two different clever solutions.

Monday, July 4, 11 am (the store is open 10 am to 5 pm),
We're reading Emma Donoghue's Room.

Monday, August 1, 7 pm,
The conversation will focus on Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Monday, August 29, 7 pm (the fifth Monday),
Into the Beautiful North, by Luis Alberto Urrea is our pick.

Don't forget that if you mention that you are purchasing the book for book club, you get 10% off the list price, plus another 5% accrues to Boswell Benefits.

No comments: