FROM THE 1600s through the mid-19th century, the Japanese empire kept its doors firmly barred. A seclusion policy instructed that no Japanese were allowed to leave the empire, and no foreigners could enter—death was the penalty with which Japan jealously guarded its borders from outside influence. One exception was the small, man-made island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki and connected by a bridge, which housed Chinese and Dutch traders who conducted business with Japan. With this island, novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Number 9 Dream) has found a setting so historically and culturally loaded that the narrative experimentalism of his previous books isn't even missed.
The titular character of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a Dutchman who arrives on Dejima as a young clerk. He spends years living in the tiny liminal realm between two empires, where Christianity is forbidden and he's trailed by Japanese interpreters speaking broken Dutch. Narrative titillation is provided when the woman de Zoet has grown to love is unwillingly sent to become a nun at a remote mountain shrine—it's an eeevil shrine, and the subplot to untangle its secrets is like a little genre Easter egg in what is otherwise a fairly traditional historical fiction.
Mitchell does, though, embrace the slipperiness inherent to his East vs. West proceedings. Dates are rendered variously in the Gregorian or lunar calendar, asking the reader to convert from "the eighth night of the first month in the 12th year of the Era of Kansei" to "around three o'clock on October 16, 1800." Jacob is caught between Japan and the Netherlands, literally and culturally, a tension encapsulated in the book's title:
"The Japanese," one sailor notes, "give florid names to their kingdom... 'The Land of a Thousand Autumns' or 'The Root of the Sun.'"
It is characteristic of Jacob's prose style that the above passage is in fact punctuated with the groans and bellows of another character who's attempting to shit off the side of the boat. Mitchell's close third-person narration is so intermingled with thought and speech that the author himself fades to the background—this story is told by its characters, and they're rich, generous guides to this engrossing corner of history.