What is it about the nostalgia trap that attracts so many writers?
Like practically everyone (it seems) I’ve been a huge fan of David Mitchell’s work for several years now. In particular I was amazed and humbled by Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, which seemed to offer a genuinely fresh take on what a novel can be. Both books functioned as powerful commentaries on the nature of identity and the sweep and strangeness of living in a globalized world — and did these things without falling into the trap of nostalgia, which is the cheapest and easiest of writerly traps.
Unsurprisingly, given Mitchell’s talent, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is beautifully written. The story opens in 1799 on Dejima, a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki harbor where the Dutch East Indies Company has a narrow perch for conducting trade with Shogun-era Japan. In this cramped universe, the Dutch traders scheme, worry, pine for their distant homes, and an unlikely love story develops between the eponymous hero and a Japanese midwife named Orito. Roughly midway through the novel, things take a turn for the strange: plot twists include the machinations of a sinister immortal abbot, a bizarre mountaintop nunnery where ritual baby-harvesting and murder are practiced, a daring midnight rescue-attempt, and the surprise arrival of British warships to challenge the isolated Dutch traders.
The entire book is written in a deft, economical style; each character’s voice is vivid and compelling, and Mitchell’s eye for detail is striking. With apparently effortless strokes he breathes life into the floating island-settlement, and the cast of Dutch traders anchored there like a barnacle on the hull of worryingly foreign Japan, an impossible distance from their homes. Although less formally ambitious than his earlier works (rather than remixing genres as he did in Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, etc., here Mitchell stays largely within the confines of traditional historical fiction), much of the novel is a pleasure to read: a smart, involving glimpse of a profoundly different world.
The least successful parts of the book are its action sequences in the second half of the novel. Although not bad per se (Mitchell may not be capable of writing a bad scene), these fail to deliver much punch or suspense, and at times suffer from muddy blocking so it’s unclear how, exactly, the dramatics are unfolding.
Overall though, it’s the conclusion of the Thousand Autumns that gave me the most trouble. In his denouement, Mitchell shifts gears: it’s years later, Jacob de Zoet is back in Europe, and we’re left with a quiet regret-filled meditation on loss, forgetting, and the passage of time. All of this is absolutely, breathtakingly lovely. It’s also the easy way out.
Because here, for once, Mitchell allows himself to wallow (there’s no other word) in the bittersweet soup of nostalgia — which is the opposite of the vivid immediacy that makes the best historical fiction come to life. Where great historical writing breathes life into the past by imbuing it with the uncertainty and newness of the present, nostalgia is a kind of self-congratulatory sugar-coating. It is emotion based on the irrecoverable nature of the past, and the gap between now and then: through the tumult and transformations of time, nostalgia whispers, only the identity of the person remembering what has gone before remains the same. In this way, nostalgia functions as a celebration of selfhood, and allows us to imagine history as a set of external events that, fundamentally, reinforce our unique unchanging continuity. But that, of course, is a fantasy. Our selves change with time, as much as the world does, and the effects of the past continue to linger. As William Faulkner (possibly the greatest of historical novelists) put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Hopefully in his next novel, David Mitchell will remember that the last thing a historical novelist should be doing is making the past feel either distant, or safe.