The big picture

. May 17, 2012.

The cover of David Mitchell’s most recent book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, features the customary descriptor, A Novel. But that’s like calling Holland’s incredibly rare flower, the Semper Augustus, a tulip. Mitchell’s book is not a novel; it is—at the very least—what a novel! I can’t recall when I’ve read a book that drew me in as inexorably, made me whistle with admiration as frequently, or held me as totally in its thrall from page one to the end. Mitchell could be describing his own book when he writes about an interaction between this novel’s villain and its hero, “Jacob finds himself as little able to evade the man’s gaze as a book can, of its own volition, evade the scrutiny of a reader.” This despite the fact that the novel is filled with unfamiliar, hard to pronounce names, and is about a relatively unfamiliar period in history, when the Dutch were still a world superpower, more than fifty years before U.S. Commodore Perry forced the shogun to open Japan to the West.

This is a novel of giant ideas, huge subjects—racism, slavery, colonialism, and globalization, among others—but this is no dry history textbook or historical novel. Mitchell has created a story about people whose words and deeds are drawn so impeccably, so convincingly, that it’s hard to believe that they didn’t actually live their lives outside the covers of this magnificent book.

There are many resonances to today’s world. “What prophet of commerce in, let us say, the year 1700 could have foreseen a time when commoners consume tea by the bucket and sugar by the sack? What subject of William and Mary could have predicted the “need” of today’s middling multitudes for cotton sheets, coffee and chocolate? Human requisites are prone to fashion; and, as clamoring new needs replace old ones, the face of the world itself changes.”

Another of the book’s main themes is the role of science—then, and by implication, today. “Had a man fallen asleep two centuries ago and awoken this morning, he should recognize his world unchanged in essence. Ships are still wooden, disease is still rampant. No man may travel faster than a galloping horse, and no man
may kill another out of eyeshot. But were the same fellow fall asleep tonight and sleep for a hundred years, or eighty, or even sixty, on waking he shall not recognize the planet for the transformations wrought upon it by science.” And the question we’re still trying to answer today, “If science is sentient, what are its ultimate desires… shall the world most closely resemble paradise or the inferno?”

The book is filled with sentences and sentiments that are breathtakingly beautiful; “This world contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.” And, “Creation never ceased on the sixth evening. Creation unfolds around us, despite us, and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we like to call it love.”