Friday, February 13, 2015

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a review

I published this review in Goodreads today. Here is a facsimile.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I started The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I was halfway through Cloud Atlas, having met and journeyed with Adam Ewing, having been mesmerized by Robert Frobisher's symphonic personality, having been drawn into the mysteries surrounding Louisa Rey, having laughed and sympathised with the ordeals of Tim Cavendish, having been chilled to the bone yet seeing the germination of hope in the eyes of Sonmi~451, and finally having to wade through the Sloosha's Crossing and the verbalisms and complexities of Zachry's tortured mind. Cloud Atlas is an immense book, its immensity stemming not from its size, which is comprehensive, but from its sheer audacity and scale. An author who dares take on six different periods in Earth history, some historical, some contemporary, and some within the realms of imaginative masonry, and delivers them with such unerring mastery and almost supernatural artistry deserves perhaps more than a pat on his back and a tiepin, and certainly does not deserve to have his lovingly constructed masterpiece abandoned exactly halfway through. But abandon it I did, for Old George's charm and the lexicon of the people of Sloosha became a little miresome. I was rather taken in by Mitchell's style and sense of unrestrained audacity, and decided to pursue a different book; perhaps to compare, perhaps to recover. I found Thousand Autumns, and the prologue interested me, for it was about Japan, and topics pertaining to Nippon and its people have, for a long time, held a strange fascination for me.

A major part of Thousand Autumns is based around the years 1799-1800, when Dutch naval and maritime economic power was fading, to be overtaken and soon dominated by the near-invincible British. The setting is the trading island of Dejima, on the outskirts of the city of Nagasaki, a century and a half before Fat Man. Tokugawa-era Japan had a policy of not allowing any foreigners into their lands, and they grudgingly tolerated the presence of the Dutch on this little trading outpost, on condition that transactions would be entirely financial, and religious discourse kept to an absolute zero. Jacob de Zoet, a clerk, sails into Dejima with Unico Vortenboesch, the new Chief of Dejima. Vortenboesch seeks to overturn the corrupt practices of his predecessor Daniel Snitker, and ensure that trade flourishes once again. Jacob de Zoet, attracted to the new Chief's unbending attitude, becomes his accomplice, unwitting to some level. With a vivid principal cast such as Orito Aibagawa and Ogawa Uzaemon, and a brilliant constellation of supporting characters such as the enigmatic Doctor Marinus or the elusive Abbot enomoto, the book travels from the seaside at Dejima to the interior of Nagasaki to the mountains of Kyoga and manages to weave three very separate plots into one unified whole, the common thread between all three being the Clerk de Zoet.

Thousand Autumns does not have the audacity or the expanse of Cloud Atlas, but it does have its eye to the little details, the historical accuracies, the cultures and traditions of two very different peoples of two hundreds years past, and is sincere about how their motives and motivations are perhaps not so different from our own. In this David Mitchell tries to bring back the theme of Atlas, where too one finds a common yarn winding its way through almost five hundred years of the history of a civilisation, bringing unity in disparity, as well as pinpointing the diversities. On the flip side, the interconnectedness of the three plots can at times feel a little tenuous, and the descriptions at times a little tiring. I almost resolved to give up the book during the first few days of Mount Shiranui, but I held on and was rewarded.

Final words : A must-read if one wants to round out Mitchell's themes and styles. Three separate plotlines weave together enmeshedly. Descriptions can be academically interesting but casually frustrating at times.

Highlight : "...nownownownownownownownow..."

View all my reviews

Saturday, January 03, 2015

How writing evolved.

Micropost :

1984 is so last century.

I read “Ai Weiwei is Living in Our Future” in three bursts over a period of three hours or so. The first burst dealt with the bit about Weiwei, and my reaction to that was outrage mixed with a hat tip towards a wonderful man. I was aware of Weiwei’s predicament in general terms, but the part about the two guards watching over him at all times was rather unsettling. That was when I shared the article on twitter with a 1984 annotation, convinced that this was worth a read. I stopped at “Just like ventriloquists”.

When I returned to the article a little later, the tone of the article changed. From the victims of constant surveillance the author shifts to the people who carry out that surveillance, but have very little control themselves. This was new for me; I had never put myself in the shoes of the latter set of people. The next bit about face recognition and how a juggler on the run from the law for fourteen years is finally caught reminded me (ahem!) of the Hollywood movie “The Avengers”, where the villainous Loki is located using face recognition software that sifts data from cameras all over the globe in a matter of minutes. That is scary. So is Obama talking in that blue tent of his. And so is the capability of predicting what I am going to do.

And then, in the third act, we come to “meatspace”. The tracker bands. The app to track your pet. Your children. To turn off their cellphones if they don’t call back. Pavlok. Quantifying everything we do including dating. “Privacy is theft”. Google as the OmniTerra machine, a bit of a Brainiac. And we the bots feeding it. We whose emotional and moral centres are now laid bare (thanks social media) and suppressed (thanks again). The watchword is obviously Control, enforced by the nearly unstoppable flow of Information. Is there an end to it? Perhaps not. And although Weiwei talks about freedom being symbiotic to one who has experienced it, I doubt if, given the sheer scale of Control that the author has mentioned, will our next generation be allowed to ever experience it?