Random House. 2011. 492 pgs. with afterword by author and book club questions.
This amazing story centers around Jacob de Zoet, a minister’s nephew who is gambling all he has in a stint as bookkeeper to the Dutch East Indies Company’s trading post on Dejima Island, Japan’s “window on the west” in Nagasaki Harbor. It is the year 1799 and De Zoet’s well-considered plan is to make his fortune over the course of a few years and then return home to win the hand of his rich fiance. But Jacob’s plans are in as much danger as the thin-walled Dejima buildings in a typhoon over Nagasaki. One fellow tradesman tries to give Jacob some perspective: ” ‘Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?’ ” Quickly, Jacob’s fate becomes bound up with two others: his plan to smuggle in a precious prayer book through Japan’s strict prohibition against Christian objects earns him an unlikely ally in Ogawa, an ambitious and intelligent young interpreter. His chance meeting with Orito, the scarred daughter of a samurai who is making an audacious gamble of her own to gain European medical knowledge, shatters Jacob’s neat plans about his Dutch fiance. Jacob, Ogawa and Orito become players in a struggle as complex as the moves of black and white go stones — as they take their parts in a triad of love, honor, loyalty and misunderstanding. Against this larger story Mitchell weaves a tangled web of corruption and betrayal among Dutch traders and maneuvers among Nagasaki’s leaders to simultaneously extract as much profit from the Dutch as they can, while keeping the foreign devils at bay on their man made island in Nagasaki harbor. Jacob’s attempt to stay true to his own code of honor brings about his temporary downfall, while Orito falls prey to a horrific danger that necessitates her own gamble with fate — as she tries to help those who need her healing gifts. Ogawa learns that he is willing to risk his conventional and safe existence to rescue Orito, even as he joins forces with Jacob, a foreigner who he learns to respect and trust. Finally, against all this complexity, Mitchell introduces yet one more conflict when the British frigate HMS Phoebus enters Nagasaki Harbor bent on usurping both the Dutch East Indies Company’s goods, as well as its position as Japan’s preferred trading partner. Jacob’s final gamble in the face of overwhelmingly bad odds will keep you turning the pages as fast as you can read.
One of the most fantastic things about this book was Mitchell’s skills in depicting richly drawn, unforgettable minor characters. From Otane, the mysterious old herbalist who plays a key role in Orito’s story, to the proud and unforgettable Magistrate Shiroyama whose key decision shapes the fates of our main characters — all are as fully realized as the three main protagonists. My only wish would have been to have a chart of characters since so many of them have complex Japanese and Dutch first and last names — as well as honorific titles.
Another wonderful theme that Mitchell uses throughout the novel is the power of the written word, or written record. Jacob’s first job on Dejima is to create a ledger of financial mid-deeds about his boss’ predecessor; this work seals Jacob’s own fate in an unexpected twist. Jacob’s bargains with Ogawa by “lending” him a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in order to ensure Ogawa’s silence about the presence of his forbidden prayer book. Orito’s fate is shaped by a scroll that contains the horrible secret of a monastery where she is a prisoner. Jacob’s tedious and painstaking translation of the scroll from Japanese to Dutch is a work of love and courage that not only reveals the danger that she is in but also how far Jacob has come from being a cautious company man to a man who is willing to gamble everything. In the end, Jacob gambles for love but for even more than love: for the chance to translate away the differences of what he once thought of as foreign, strange, and unknown in order to embrace the possibility of a fully-realized life.