Some thoughts

I’m enjoying the sort of “how to live your life” vibe of graduation speeches that are floating around in the ether these days. An acquaintance of mine from college posted this one of Robert Pinksy at Concord Academy on facebook, and it’s very good. The key here seems to be: chose a worthy difficulty.

I keep wanting to write about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which I finished on the plane to Maine, but I can’t quite remember it now. After liking the beginning, then finding it a bit tedious before being sucked in entirely, in the end I loved it, but now I’m trying to remember exactly why. I think I liked how the author doesn’t really give you anything — you have to puzzle out what is happening, and where the characters are, and who the characters are, and what’s the point of it. You are like Jacob de Zoet, thrown into a place you don’t understand — you don’t understand the Europeans, which ones are fundamentally decent and which ones are not, and you don’t understand the Japanese at all. It’s kind of extrapolating meaning from a few quick sketches, like Orito extrapolates Jacob’s meaning from the sketch he pastes to the fan. I think the use of the present tense helps this.

It also seems to be about the complicated workings of fate — Jacob’s love for Anna sends him to Japan to earn the money to marry her, but his fate is to end the terrible cult Orito is captured by. He’s powerless to either stay with his son in Japan, or bring his son out of Japan with him, just like the slaves are powerless to return to their own islands. No one really makes their own destiny, although people’s behavior does matter. It’s kind of about the largeness of history, and the smallness of humans against that bigger picture.

I liked it.

I read it for Claudia’s Imaginary friends book club. The next book is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.


6 thoughts on “Some thoughts

  1. Yes, you’ve articulated some things well–that feeling of being thrown into a culture you don’t understand, and the feeling that behavior matters, but that one person’s fate is small against this backdrop of history.

    • I just went and read what you wrote — I’d wanted to wait until I’d read it myself — and I forgot about the part near the end where he would have been shot had he not taken his hat off to reveal that he, like the English captain’s son, had red hair! Yes — it’s all fate, and we don’t even realize how the things we do for one reason change history for reasons we are not even aware of.

  2. Huh. Fate isn’t what struck me about this. It was more something about morality and the choices we make to be moral or not. Also, can I say that I adored the surprise of a chapter that was suddenly a poem? I cannot imagine how one would even begin to write a book like this, to even conceive of this. I just finished it a couple of days ago and am still digesting, but will write about it too eventually.

    • There were certainly characters who were moral and those who weren’t, and it was interesting to discover which was which. But a lot of it did seem to me to be about how each person’s story, which seemed very important to each person, was just a little detail in the tapestry of history that was taking place all around them — I’m thinking of the slaves, which the traders thought were there for their convenience, but who also had stories of where they had come from and how they had ended up where they were; or the Jacob and Orito story, or the Uzaeman (?) and Orito story, where according to Orito, Jacob’s failure to save her resulted in his later actions which freed the women from the cult; or how Jacob himself was not shelled by the English ship because he reminded the captain of his dead son; or how the opening up of Japan to the English was delayed beause the Captain had gout. Everyone has a story, and thinks they are living their own life, but all the bits interlock and create some entity that’s much larger, and what Mitchell is doing is showing us both — Really interesting to read this after a sort of dry biography of Catherine the Great which did in fact inform a little bit about what Russia was like in the 1700s, but also left me wanting to know a lot more.

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