If a novel is recommended by both Mr. DuPont and Mr. Engelen (independently, as they have not yet made each other’s acquaintance), it must be a good novel. Hence, I decided to purchase a copy of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and bring it with me on the airplane. No lack of airplane journeys, this week, so it did not take me very long to finish it. And I concur: this is an extraordinarily rich historical novel, full of memorable characters and events. Set against the background of the Dutch trading post Dejima (Nagasaki) at the turn of the nineteenth century, Mitchell’s latest novel is an intriguing story of hope, betrayal, prejudice, corruption, religion, imperialism, science and, inevitably, impossible love; at times sarcastic yet in the end naively romantic. The author beautifully describes sounds, smells, city life, random thoughts and other small details that may not be directly relevant to the plot, but contribute greatly to the overall reading experience. Thus, he succeeds in bringing to life his characters and the world in which they live. Frankly, I doubt the historical probability of some of the events; in particular, the morbid cult of Mount Shiranui does not seem very convincing. Nevertheless, I highly enjoyed reading this book, not in the least because it evoked nostalgia by reminding me of my own initial fascination with Japan, my first exotic Other.
The title of the novel contains the name of the main character, a devout VOC clerk from Zeeland, who resists the temptation of corruption but hopelessly falls for the temptation of female beauty. It also refers to one of Japan's nicknames: the land of the thousand autumns. Of course, the Japanese isles have four different seasons, each with their distinctive beauty – as any tourist pamphlet or kitschy ‘Zen’ book reminds us of. And of course, spring brings the annual extravagance of white and pink cherry blossoms, giving the nation an excuse for two weeks of jouissance. However, as any expert or resident will confirm, Japan is at its most beautiful in autumn, when the summer heat is gone but the winter cold has not yet arrived, when nature is at its most dynamic. In autumn, the maple trees in temples and parks turn red as fire, the ginkgo trees yellow as gold. Flocks of tourists come to the old capital to visit famous temples (and queue for hours to take pictures of themselves in front of famous sightseeing spots covered with red leaves), but the forested mountains around the city have plenty of quiet hiking trails. Throughout the country, towns and temples are covered in colourful dresses of red, yellow, green and orange. The air is fresh, but not too cold; the sky is usually clear, except for the occasional shower. Long periods of grey skies and never-ending rain, so common in the Netherlands or the UK during this season, are very rare. Autumn is also the time of many great festivals, religious ceremonies and cultural events. In sum, autumn is probably the best time to be in Japan.
Some pictures of the past few months.