The location is exotic: a tiny man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki called Dejima. I wasn’t even sure that it was a real place but Wikipedia now informs me that it is. The events of the novel take place between 1799 and 1817 when Dejima, occupied by the Dutch, was the sole point of trade between Japan and the outside world. How little we know even now of the hidden Oriental world of that period. Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk who has come to Dejima to make his fortune so that he can return to Holland to wed his beloved Anna. He is our eyes and ears in this place.
There are other memorable characters as well. Orito Aibagawa is a samurai midwife whose forced residence for a time in a Shinto convent shows us a life and belief system that strain credulity. Ogawa Uzaemonis is a translator who introduces us to the hierarchies of rank and jealousies among translators and the difficulties of navigating between these two languages. The island physician, Dr. Marinus, has brought his harpsichord to the island and wishes nothing more than to publish his taxonomy of Japanese flora; but meanwhile he serves up the rudimentary treatments available for gall stones, appendicitis and other maladies in the best way that Western medicine in this remote outpost has to offer.
The language is breath-taking. I wish I had the space to reproduce some of Mitchell’s better descriptions. One of the very best takes a page and a half (pgs 451-452) to describe "gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight." It is eloquent testimony that “This world…contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.” But this book is also a masterpiece.To read an interview with David Mitchell, click here; and for profiles of Mitchell, click here and here.