David Mitchell narrates just about everything. We’re chatting on the phone, he from his home in West Cork, Ireland, about his new historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. When asked if he’s grown tired of talking about it, the 41-year-old English novelist says, ‘No! Not at all, he lied through his teeth.’ He does the same a few times during the conversation, and we can’t help thinking it’s a tick born of being a writer who sees narration and structure everywhere. His debut novel, 1999’s Ghostwritten, tells one story through nine narrators, and 2003’s brilliant, Booker-shortlisted Cloud Atlas tells six stories over the course of hundreds of years, only to boomerang back through them again.
His latest work is of a different sort. The titular Jacob is a Dutch clerk sent to the Japanese island of Dejima in 1799 to clean up some company corruption. The narrative then switches gears to investigate a mountain nunnery run by the numinous Lord Abbott Enomoto, who earlier in the book conducted anguished business dealings with Jacob. The final third returns to Jacob and tightly ties his story in with the nunnery, and Enomoto, and seals their fates.
‘It’s three parts, so far so classical in a way,’ Mitchell says. ‘But in book one there’s just one narrative head, in book two there are two narrative heads, and in book three there are three narrative heads. So it goes from a one-stroke engine to a two-stroke engine to a three-stroke engine, which I hope gives the story an acceleration.’
The book rolls along on a grand narrative that deals with love, slavery, pride and, sure, prejudice for some 500 pages. But like an artisan, Mitchell carves his finest moments from the smallest details, single lines that resonate for bunches of pages. In one such moment, Jacob’s chief regales him with his own sob story. Jacob, who had planned to return to Holland a rich man to win over his betrothed’s family, but whose life at this point has derailed in dramatic fashion, looks out and thinks, ‘I miss seeing children.’ The historical details, too, bring Dejima to life. Mitchell lived in Japan for years and travelled to the Netherlands to research a clerk’s life. ‘You have to do the research to make it believable,’ he says. ‘But if all of my research was visible, the novel would feel like one enormous and insufferable Wikipedia article.’
The release of Thousand Autumns comes at a time when Mitchell’s star couldn’t be any higher. In 2007, Time put the author on its Time 100, a list of the most influential people in the world. It’s also worth noting that Cloud Atlas is making its way through Hollywood. The Matrix’s Wachowski brothers bought the movie rights, and Natalie Portman has reportedly signed on (though Mitchell says he won’t ‘spill the beans’ over whom she’ll play).
With its intricately overlayed storylines, Cloud Atlas would seem doomed as a screenplay. But Mitchell says he’s read the screenplay, and that the intention is not to ‘simply film the book’. ‘I am under contract to say it’s good, but I’m in the weird position of having to say it’s good and also thinking it’s very good,’ he laughs. ‘The Wachowskis are artists who happened into filmmaking. We met once, it started off as a business meeting and we ended up spending all day in each other’s company. I can hear an observer say, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” And the answer is, Yes I know I would, and it’s true.’
Thousand Autumns, then, asks Mitchell’s fans to try something new at the peak of his popularity, and he has tailored his big, brainy novel to keep them reading. ‘Generally, long books overstay their welcome,’ he says. ‘So my method is to use structure as an ally, and weld three novels into one. When each is that short, you have your getaway car from the tedium cops.’
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is published by Random House.