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Reader’s Den

May in the Reader's Den: "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" week two

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Plattegrond van Deshima on WikipediaPlattegrond van Deshima on WikipediaWelcome back to the Reader's Den! This week, we will be talking about part one - the first thirteen chapters - of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. With the exception of the opening chapter, the entirety of part one is told from the perspective of Jacob de Zoet during the first months of his residence on the island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan.

With names like Artie Grote, Ponke Ouwehand, and Piet Baert, Jacob's Dutch colleagues can be as difficult to keep straight as the characters in a Russian novel. Assigned by his boss, Chief Resident Vorstenbosch to conduct an audit of past years' financial discrepancies, Jacob makes fast enemies of many of his co-workers. It is in this lonely environment, with these hostile companions, that Jacob begins to become fixated on Orito Aibigawa, the Japanese midwife with a burn covering one side of her face.

He begins a sort of courtship, using Dr. Marinus and the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, with whom he has developed a friendship, as middlemen. Things actually seem somewhat promising, until his efforts are stopped short by an unexpected series of events that take Orito away from Dejima and from Jacob.

  • Why does Mitchell open the book with a birth scene? Why is this scene important? How does it tie in to the rest of the book? Dutch trader watching an incoming VOC ship at Dejima by Kawahara Keiga on WikipediaDutch trader watching an incoming VOC ship at Dejima by Kawahara Keiga on Wikipedia
  • As de Zoet enters Dejima, his belongings are searched for any forbidden items - namely Christian artifacts or texts. He is smuggling in a psalter too precious to him to give up, although he is terrified of being discovered. The interpreter who inspects his trunks, Ogawa Uzaemon, allows the book into the country, and later warns Jacob to keep it very well hidden. Why does Ogawa help this strange Dutchman at his own risk?
  • In chapter seven, Jacob sells mercury to Lord Abbot Enomoto. Why does Enomoto say that he feels an affinity with Jacob? What is it about this man that seems powerful and intimidating?
  • Jacob and Orito are characters whose freedoms are restricted and who don't fit in. Jacob is trapped on Dejima for five years among Japanese interpreters and unpleasant Dutchmen. Orito is limited by the societal restrictions placed on her gender and by the burn on her face. Is this what draws them together? Or is it something more? 
  • Does Jacob really want to return to Zeeland, and to Anna? Is his infatuation with Orito, in part, a device to free him of his attachments to home?
  • Why does Jacob delay in going to Orito when he sees her franticly trying to enter Dejima on the day she disappears? What forces cause him to wait until it is too late?

Please leave your comments below! Next week, we will be discussing part two of the book, through the end of chapter twenty-six, which chronicles the events that follow Orito's abduction from Dejima.

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