THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A writer in full bloom

Always technically artful, David Mitchell this time yields a shogun-era, page turner full of humanity as well as virtuosity

By Richard Eder
July 18, 2010

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The British novelist David Mitchell has won fervent critical admiration, and rightly, for his world-spanning mix of the phantasmagoric and the acutely real. In their cosmic reporting, the sinuously interwoven fictions in “Ghostwritten’’ and “Cloud Atlas’’ wield nightmare, paranoia, and acrid comedy.

At their best they have the transporting force of scoured revelation. They can also breed resistance: vision and migraine at the same time. They attach lead boots while attaching wings. The boots protest the occasional dead-end strangeness and narrative difficulty — a contemporary baroque that encumbers flight. The wings lift our stubborn feet clinging to the earth.

Mitchell’s best work has until now been a series of astonishing excursions that leave us missing a human connection that would match them in strength and brilliance. Three years ago “Black Swan Green,’’ for all its many qualities, was an effortful, even sentimental, attempt to provide one.

With “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,’’ Mitchell has retained his virtuoso variety and restrained it; he makes it serve as well as enrich a human narrative that grips and moves. Its pages boast enough intricate turns to invite lingering; nevertheless they refuse it. “Thousand Autumns’’ is a page-turner. It is Mitchell’s masterpiece; and also, I am convinced, a masterpiece of our time.

The novel is set at the end of the 18th century in Dejima, a tiny enclave in the harbor of Nagasaki used by the Dutch East Indies Co. as entrepôt for its lucrative trade with a Japan that bans all other contact with the outside world. Japanese inspectors and translators go there daily to conduct business and enforce the restrictions; of the dozen Dutch staff, only the chief resident and his deputy are allowed occasional mainland visits to officials in the Nagasaki administration.

Mitchell uses these twin, barely connected, mutually obsessed isolations as a burning glass to concentrate and ignite a chain of stories of extraordinary power and variety. They range from lethal enmities within each community to a delicately rending romance, a monstrous ministate cult, devastating treacheries, near-saintly heroisms, and brilliantly rendered historical maneuvers by the Dutch, the British who seek to displace them, and the Japanese.

At the hesitant center of these stories, which wield the most sophisticated post-modern twists and ironies together with the most straightforward and rousing of dramatic adventure, is the accountant, Jacob de Zoet.

Sent to work for five years in Dejima, and to assist in investigating corruption, he is both uncertain and determined; his accountant’s pen eventually mightier than the swords wielded by the novel’s variety of activists and freebooters. One of Mitchell’s best achievements is to make Jacob virtually transparent, a prism that shows the vivid colors of the figures around him until at the end he steps forward himself as heroic protagonist.

The individual stories that surge through the novel are both intricate and thrilling. One tells with subtle delicacy the romance between Jacob and Orito, daughter of a highborn samurai family who transcends tradition to work as a devoted midwife. It is a romance consisting of hints and hesitations, never near consummation, soon brought to an end. Yet it haunts the rest of their lives.

Another, occupying nearly a third of the novel, portrays the bestial mountain preserve of Enomoto, a depraved cult-master abbot and a national political figure. Orito, sold to his “shrine’’ when her father dies, uses canny tactics to fend off the pressure to be impregnated like the other inmates, then chooses to abandon a grueling escape plan to minister to them.

The abbot is a figure of immeasurable horror, smoothly plausible and insane: Orito’s simple heroism is drawn with admirable depth and complexity. It is Mitchell’s greatest advance over his earlier work: From dazzling abstractions he has turned to writing profoundly worked-out human characters (even the abbot’s wickedness is subtly credible).

There is Ogawa, an interpreter, whose own love for Orito moves him to attempt a desperate, vividly told attempt to free her; with success seemingly at hand, he is horribly betrayed. There is the English Captain Penhaligon, commanding a frigate sent to seize the Dutch enclave. We see in the beautifully depicted shipboard routines of this choleric but complex character a buried humanity that surfaces after he uses his guns to smash up Dejima’s buildings. He tacks away rather than fire chain-shot to tear apart its two defending leaders.

They are Jacob, in fact, backed by the tricky, part saintly Dutch medical researcher, Dr. Marinus, another vividly complex character. Then, there is the crowning complexity of Shiroyama, Nagasaki’s stiff and remote provincial governor, who at the end constructs a tragic, brilliantly contrived duel to the death with Enomoto.

The richness of “Thousand Autumns,’’ its innumerable side stories, its minor characters who refuse to be minor, can hardly be replicated in a brief review. And too much of the suspense would be given away — some already has, but the supply is barely scratched — by more detail. What remains to note, after my masterpiece tag, is the poetic fineness of the writing. To end this, a few examples.

Jacob’s love-struck insomnia: “Glass panes melt moonlight; paper panes filter it, to dust.’’ The season’s change: “Birds are notched on the low sky. Autumn is aging.’’ And Shiroyama, facing disgrace (he’d let Nagasaki’s port be under-guarded, allowing the British frigate to enter) and the duel with the abbot, contemplates the rich life of his town as if it were a painted scroll. “This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.’’

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET By David Mitchell

Random House, 479 pp., $26