THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, by David Mitchell. Random House, 479 pp., $26.It's very possible to find yourself shuddering, moaning and trying (in vain) to look away from the first few pages of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," a mercilessly compelling novel by David Mitchell that includes some of the finest research on 19th century medical technology ever used to make a reader recoil in horror. From the harrowing birth scene that opens the book on through the anesthetic-free kidney stone removal near its end, Mitchell makes sure the novel's higher themes never distract from the dirty and sometimes mortal details of living in an age when mercury dust was used to cure syphilis.
The book tracks several years in the life of Jacob, a devout young man eager to find his fortune working for the Dutch East India Co. In 1799, Jacob arrives on Dejima, a man-made island off the coast of Japan, with the stated purpose, under Capt. Unico Vorstenbosch, of rooting out the thieves and smugglers among the company's men.
Naturally, doing right is more complicated than abiding by the rules (a tough lesson for our hero, a stalwart Calvinist), and we begin to see there are islands with their own discrete cultures and laws everywhere we look in Japan. There's the sinister convent of Shiranui, where no one uninitiated may go, and mainland Japan, where no Westerner may go, and Dejima, where no foreigner who is not Dutch may go. The novel is its own archipelago of stories that touch on and change one another.
The Thousand Autumns of the title are taken from one of Japan's many names for itself, and, like Mitchell's earlier "Number9Dream," the book is about a young man's experience of Japan. Here, though, there are two young men: Jacob, who falls heedlessly in love with Orito, a brilliant Japanese med student and midwife; and Ogawa Uzaemon, a young Japanese man forbidden by family and class from loving the same girl. The young men experience one another's linguistic troubles, errors of protocol and basic human nature - all as similar as their cultures are different.
Orito has a different narrative path; one that sets up the book's least probable (but most fun) conflict. It's a battle of wits between the brave young doctor and a Machiavellian samurai christened "The Master of Go" (for his skill at the Japanese board game) in the book's climactic section.
For all the brutality in "Jacob de Zoet," the novel is populated by only a couple of demons and equally few saints. But every adventure story needs at least one villain, and abbot Enomoto, a local political power broker, fits the bill nicely. Enomoto believes he has discovered the secret to eternal life, and all he needs to safeguard it is a new convert to the strange cult he's founded at his shrine - Orito. Seemingly invincible, the abbot claims to have lived for 600 years and can suck the ki, or life force, out of small animals, leaving them dead. A little cartoony? Maybe, but no less enjoyable for it.
One of the great things about "Jacob de Zoet" (and the rest of Mitchell's novels) is that it's never wholly clear that the bad guy is going to get his and the good guy is going to get the girl. A particularly evil character in "Ghostwritten," for example, escapes the novel completely unscathed, only to save the protagonist of "Number9Dream" from certain death (Mitchell's characters frequently pop up in more than one novel; I'm almost certain I've seen the elderly herbalist in "Jacob de Zoet" somewhere before.). The end of this book may surprise, but it satisfies, too.
It's a little mystifying that Mitchell has ended up with an unshakable rep as a Serious Literary Novelist. He's such a masterly composer of formally intricate yarns that it's tempting to put him on a pedestal, but like his last two novels, "Black Swan Green" and the celebrated "Cloud Atlas," "Jacob de Zoet" is an entertainment first and an education second. Its characters are wonderful, and its narrative twists frequently astonishing, but by its wistful final pages, it's clearly a good, old-fashioned melodrama.
What could be better?