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Now living in Cork, British experimental fiction writer David Mitchell talks about his fascination with the Far East and outlines the huge amount of legwork that went into the book
Anne Sexton, 01 Jun 2010
The wunderkind of British experimental fiction, David Mitchell, spent four years researching his latest novel, an historical epic set in eighteen century Japan, but whose earth-shaking themes have very modern resonances. David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is one of those rare books – a multilayered literary novel that's bound to please both critics and readers, be nominated for awards and, like his last novel, Cloud Atlas, sit atop bestseller lists. It's a finely crafted, beautifully written book and a thumping good read.
Set during the Edo era, Japan's self-imposed period of isolation, Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki harbour is the country's one window to the outside world and the trading post of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).
Hoping to make his fortune and marry his sweetheart back home, Jacob de Zoet, an incorruptible clerk, arrives in Dejima in 1799. Back in Europe, the Napoleonic Wars are being fought; the Batavian Republic (the Netherlands) falls to the French; and through corruption and mismanagement the VOC is a financial wreck.
Having taken longer on this novel – four years – than any of his previous, Mitchell's skill in recreating the late eighteenth century is the product of many years of research.
"I was doing research even up until a few weeks before handing it in," he says. "You look things up and one clue leads to another and suddenly you find that, no, they wouldn't have used that word in the eighteenth century or actually, that way of lighting a room wouldn't have existed then."
"I did some research in archives in Leiden in Holland; I did conventional research but then I read novels to learn how ships in the Napoleonic era worked and non-fiction sources as well; I read a small hill of eighteenth century novels to try and pick up phrases and vocabulary. Then of course, once you've done all that you have to hide it otherwise you get sentences like: 'Shall we take the four-horse phaeton into town my lady, or would you prefer the two-horse barouche-landau?' That will kill your fiction, so nine-tenths of it has to be below the waterline."