Literature can be dangerous, as David Mitchell reminds us early in his surprisingly traditional and panoramic novel, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.”
The year is 1799. The copper-haired Jacob de Zoet has arrived on Dejima, an artificial Japanese island, to work as a junior clerk for the Dutch East India Company. Though the shogun regime has banned Christian literature, Jacob has a Psalter stowed in his luggage.
The family heirloom is intended to protect Jacob: A bullet lodged in its cover hints at one of several occasions when it has miraculously saved a De Zoet’s life. Yet he faces a grisly punishment if it’s discovered on a trading post already rife with corruption and the vicious power struggles of a corporation staggering under debt.
This isn’t the kind of tale you might expect from Mitchell, one of Britain’s most innovative authors. A chunky linear narrative told in the third person, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” flaunts none of the structural experimentalism of his best-known novel, “Cloud Atlas,” nor the stylistic inventiveness of “number9dream.”
Yet the book is ambitious on its own terms. Fusing elements of a love story, a financial thriller and a maritime adventure, the plot spans almost 20 years, allowing Mitchell to reflect on leadership, courage and exile as he maps an encounter between two civilizations that is less a clash than a wary two-step.
In the best tradition of plucky young adventurers, Jacob has come to Dejima to make his fortune and claim the hand of his upper-class beloved back home. Before long, she is pushed from his heart by an even less attainable woman, Orito Aibagawa.
Floating in the port of Nagasaki, Dejima is the sole nexus between Enlightenment Europe and the shogun’s isolationist realm. Foreign traders, with a handful of high-ranking exceptions, are banned from the mainland, while only a few Japanese translators and prostitutes may visit the island.
Orito is a rare case. A midwife whose beauty is made all the more alluring by a burn on her left cheek, she has been granted permission to study medicine under a company physician. Jacob has barely begun a clandestine courtship when Orito’s father dies and she is whisked off to a shady monastery where monks have formulated a bizarre ritual that turns nuns into sex slaves.
Left to his work, the upright -- not to say uptight -- Jacob combs the company ledgers for accounting irregularities and quickly makes some powerful enemies. With the company limping toward its final days, the fate of the trading post grows ever more uncertain. The English are in the ascendant on the high seas, and a gouty naval captain eyes Dejima as the ultimate trophy.
From an epic cast that includes a harpsichord-playing doctor and a monkey named William Pitt, Mitchell ventriloquizes a cacophonous mix of voices. There’s the salty patois of seasoned sailors, the pompous self-righteousness of the corrupt traders, and the error-strewn English of the Japanese translators.
It’s a hectic yarn, complete with abductions and poisonings, samurai raids and naval battles. The overall effect can be distractingly choppy, and not intentionally so as in “Cloud Atlas.” Still, Mitchell’s energetic storytelling is hard to resist, and he manages in quieter moments to meditate on the mystery of the Orient without falling for its cliches.
“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is from Sceptre in the U.K. and from Random House in the U.S. (469 pages, 18.99 pounds, $26). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)