For roughly 200 years the only way for Europeans to get into Japan was through a small artificial island off of Nagasaki called Dejima. It was originally built for the Portuguese but for most of it's time it was controlled by the Netherlands. The Dutch could be on this small island but couldn't actually set foot on Japanese soil without strict authorization.
This story follows a young man named Jacob de Zoet. He has gone to the Far East to gain his fortune so that he can be worthy of the woman he loves. Young de Zoet has also been tasked to help clean up the incredible amount of corruption that has taken place here at the far end of Dutch influence. His honesty quickly makes him a pariah amongst his fellows.
Through his work he chances to meet a young woman who has been given the almost unheard of privilege of scholarship. Miss Asigawa was burned on one side of her face and is largely thought of as unsuitable for marriage, but de Zoet takes a liking to her. When her father dies she is spirited away to help settle a debt. He never forgets about her or stops trying to save her from a terrible situation.
This era is fascinating to me in part because we don't really have a modern equivalent. The Dutch workers are virtually imprisoned on a small island, only a few yards away from the country that they work with daily. Some of them resent it and can only look at the Japanese as inferior peoples. Others are charmed and entranced by the nearby nation and go so far as to fall in love with it.
And it goes a bit further than that as well. One of the conditions that the Japanese imposed was that there be no sign of Christianity whatsoever from the Europeans. Severe penalties were imposed for any crucifix of rosary beads and especially for any written materials. Japanese who came into daily conflict with them had to periodically prove that they had no love for Christ by stamping on an image in the floor.
Meanwhile, the Dutch were also incredibly cut off from all news. One trading ship would appear each year from Batavia. If that ship sunk or was waylaid then there was no contact whatsoever. Later in the book when an English ship sails in uninvited, they have to rely on their enemies to give them news from back in the fatherland.
It's also easy to see why corruption abounded. Even strongly virtuous men would be tempted when authority was so far away and so easily fooled. Books were easily manipulated and official records were only vaguely similar to actual shipped materials.
Mitchell does a strong job here with some fascinating material. Apparently he stumbled upon the Dejima museum while working in Japan. He'd never heard of the island or it's legacy before. (I hadn't either.) He took a bunch of notes and some years later whipped them into this book here. It took him four years and he worked very hard to get the details correct. I'm not anywhere near knowledgeable to judge his accuracy but the story feels true.
'1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' was longlisted for the Booker prize. That means that it was one of the ten novels selected for consideration as the best English language novel from the Commonwealth or Ireland. It did not make the cut when they cut the list down to five novels though. Having read a number of previous Booker winners I can say that it certainly wouldn't have shamed their company if it had won. It's a bit more 'straight' story and a bit less 'literary' than I expected. Which isn't meant as a criticism. I'll be curious to see what the winner is. It will have a hard time being a better read than this.
The title is interesting to me. Apparently one of the ancient names (well nickname I suppose) for Japan is 'Land of 1000 Autumns'. Isn't that beautiful?