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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

David Mitchell - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell


If you go to the beautiful and recently re-opened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, make sure not to miss the rooms dedicated to the deeds of the Dutch East India Company.

You will see heaps of colonialist paintings and dioramas showing ships flying the Dutch flag docked to piers surrounded by dark skinned slaves sweating their hearts out in plantations dotted by the random elephant.

When walking over these paintings, please spend some time looking at the one portraying a romanticised view of the Grote Postweg 'created by Dutch engineers' and running across the island of Java in Indonesia.
If you read the through the tiny lines of the painting caption, you will learn that up to 12,000 Indonesian unpaid workers died building up the Grote Postweg. Don't get fooled by the innocent name 'The Great Post Road' as this was actually a military road used by occupying Dutchmen and Frenchmen to defend in a more suitable way Java from the British forces (who eventually never showed up).

This preamble to say that Dutch colonialism which is still known in The Netherlands as a key element of De Gouden Eeuw (The Golden Age) was far from being based exclusively on trade, science and art. While the works, ideas and thoughts of Spinoza, Rembrandt, Grotius, and Huygens flourished back in the motherland the Dutch East India Company made money overseas. And moneymaking is not exactly the province of honest and gallant gentlemen.

One of the greatest peaceful achievements of the Dutch East India Company was the creation of the first European commercial outpost in Japan on the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki.
You will find a cute scale model of Dejima in the Rijksmuseum looking like it has been made with matchsticks and paper tissues. The whole island was a tiny thing no bigger than a modern day football pitch but played a significant role in opening up Shogun Japan to the outside world for bad or for good.

One day in the 1990s David Mitchell - back then an English teacher in Japan - was wandering through Nagasaki and stumbled into the former Dejima which had been swallowed up by the city growth in the meantime and was no more an island but a neighbourhood wrapped up in motorways.

Thus the decision, years later, to write this novel. Or this is what Mr Mitchell said.
The result is a compelling story all right, but left me quite disappointed due to many a historical inaccuracy I believe David Mitchell should have studied his subject more carefully before embarking on such an ambitious novel.

I'm not an expert on 18th century Japan, but there are a few bits of information here which left me dubious while leafing through the pages. I will give you two.

a) It's the year 1799 and Mitchell tells us that some Japanese women spend their time playing mahjong. Now this rang an off-key bell as the game is actually a Chinese one. By checking online it seems that the game was imported to Japan only in 1924 by a soldier coming back from China. Mahjong known and played (by women!) in an isolated community in rural Japan in the year 1799? Very unlikely.

b) Same year. A Japanese scholar suggests that his fellow countrymen should learn how to use and produce rifles to defend themselves, thus avoiding being exterminated 'like the natives of Van Diemen's Land'.
Now, in AD 1799 Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) was not even fully explored and the awful, bloody massacre of its local population - known as the Black War - began no earlier than 1804 lasting around thirty years. Someone stating in 1799 that the natives of Van Diemen's Land are exterminated was either a foreseer or the proud owner of a customised Delorean car hidden in a barn.

I'm not sure if I can forgive David Mitchell his laziness even though I like his way of writing.
After all, he lived in Japan and he was supposed to check his facts*

*Surfing around the Net, I've found an interview in which Mitchell claims that he spent FOUR years researching this novel. Apparently he got very concerned regarding the existence of shaving cream in 1799. It's a pity that he overlooked many other significant details.