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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

 
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Owarikenshi
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 20, 2011 1:22 pm    Post subject: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet Reply with quote
Since I haven't been able to find here a full review of this noteworthy novel, here goes my 2 koban's worth:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
is like reading four novels in one, and all of them excellent. It is by turns a comedy, a commentary on the bloody-mindedness of human nature, a thriller set in the beginning of the end of Edo culture, and a "sea story" worthy of Patrick O'Brien.

Set primarily on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor where the story begins in 1799, there is a fascinating mixture of Dutch and Japanese characters, and the interactions between the two groups are true to the time period and frequently hilarious, intentionally or unintentionally. The title character plays "straight man" to a doctor every bit as bizarre and crusty as O'Brien's Maturin, several tragic Malay slaves, some absolutely amoral "traders" whose backstories you will come to know, and some hauntingly honorable and depraved Japanese. Not to mention a larcenous monkey named William Pitt.

The now-acclaimed author's writing style is so weird as to be almost indescribable, and this book is the exception that proves every rule you've ever heard about what and how you need to write in order to get published. It's enough to restore one's faith that brilliance will still be rewarded. Up to around Page 200 you might be forgiven for thinking you are reading a smart-assed sendup of Dejima via National Lampoon, and then . . . whoa. Things get serious. No spoilers from ME, read it yourself and find out!

Dejima, Nagasaki, and the inland temple/shrine are nothing if not atmospheric (indeed, many modern "literary" writers' penchant for bodily fluids crosses my line of TMI) and the book is impossible to put down. You simply have to keep reading to see what happens, and the page-turning is as compelling as any so-called "thriller."

As Obenjo commented in another thread, it would have been nice if some of the principal Japanese characters had been as fully fleshed-out as some of the Dutch, but given the book is already sizeable I imagine some of that might have been lost in the editing process. Indeed, given that the author gives us quite an accurate impression of the impenetrability of Japanese culture by foreigners of that period, this might even have been intentional. One thing for sure is he shows us, not tells us, and paints images that will stay with you forever.

If you are looking for a terrific book to recommend to an "entry-level" Japanophile, such as a not-yet-addicted spouse or friend, this would be an excellent choice. Prior historical knowledge not required, just enjoy. Less heavy than Shogun, and much better researched. The only historical nit I can pick on this is a blurred line between Buddhism and Shinto (which we all know really can be blurry anyway).

For the record, I liked this a lot better than The Signore (which put me to sleep, possibly the result of a stilted translation) and I thought it was a great deal of fun.

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lordameth
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 21, 2011 1:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
Thanks for the review! I'd heard about this book, seen it on the shelves, maybe, but, it can be so hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to novels set in historical Japan, or novels at all. So, a review like this is a great help Smile
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Owarikenshi
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PostPosted: Fri Jul 22, 2011 1:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote
Amazon's "recommendations" just bestowed the news that Laura Joh Rowland's "Sano Ichiro" will take on investigating the Ako Incident in The Ronin's Mistress, to be issued on 9/13/11.

Tsuneyoshi must be haunting us. That's all I can say . . . Shocked


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