The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

BGJ 155 Spring 2011

Reviewer: Bill Brakes

Hard back edition ISBN 978-0-340-92156-2
Trade paperback ISBN 978-0-340-92157-9
Paperback B-format ISBN 978-0-340-92158-6
Paperback A-format ISBN 978-0-340-92159-3

David Mitchell’s fifth novel, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”, was published in May 2010 to mixed reviews. It appears that the critics, having observed the talent and potential exhibited by Mitchell in earlier novels (perhaps most memorably in “Cloud Atlas”), are disappointed every time he fails to produce a masterpiece. Leaving such issues aside, the purpose of this review is to provide a brief commentary on the Go-playing that occurs in this novel. I shall endeavour to avoid giving away too much of the plot, for the benefit of those who have not yet read the book but may wish to do so in the future.

“The Thousand Autumns (etc.)”, hereinafter referred to as TAJZ, is set in the Japan of 1799/1800. Most of the action takes place on the island of Dejima just off the port of Nagasaki. However, the Go-playing occurs on mainland Japan. There are earlier incidental references to Go, but the main occurrence is in Part III which is entitled ”The Master of Go”.

Chapter XXX begins: ”Lord Abbot Enomoto of Kyoga Domain places a white stone on the board” (p.346). His opponent is ”Magistrate Shiroyama”. We obtain some information about the progress of the game through comments that each makes. In addition, the omniscient narrator allows us to be privy to Shiroyama’s thoughts. Enomoto’s stone is described by his opponent as a ”way-station . . . between his northern flank . . . and his eastern groups”. This use of cardinal points to describe areas of the board occurs throughout this passage and also elsewhere in TAJZ. It is not used in modern day commentaries. I do not know whether their use at this date is historically accurate.

Apparently commenting on his position, Shiroyama ponders: ”Where is the hidden way . . . to reverse my reverses?” (p.346). Later, ”Shiroyama threatens Enomoto’s isolated stone by placing it in atari” (p.349). The developing game serves as a background to a conversation between the men. There are no details to allow the reader to discern who is in the ascendancy in the game. Towards the end of the chapter, Shiroyama observes: ”If only this world was a clean board of lines and intersections. If only time was a sequence of considered moves and not a chaos of slippages and blunders” (p.350). The game is interrupted by the arrival of news favourable to Shiroyama. ”My temporary reverses . . . are reversed”, he observes (p.351).

The climax of TAJZ occurs in chapter XXXIX, the final chapter of Part III. It again involves interaction between the protagonists Enomoto and Shiroyama; they resume (and complete) their Go game as the final stages of their conflict are enacted and resolution achieved. It is Enomoto who is the victor. We see the final stages of the game from Shiroyama’s perspective. He appears to be attempting to connect groups and at one stage claims his ”bridge is only three stones from completion” (p.446). Shiroyama fears that his ”dominant empire [will be] . . . split into three paltry fiefdoms.” Then ”the bridge is just two intersections away: Shiroyama claims one . . . and Enomoto places a White stone on the other” (p.446). Shortly after, both players estimate the final score: ”The Abbot makes it eight points in White’s favour; Shiroyama puts Enomoto’s margin of victory at eight and a half points” (p.447).

Overall, the descriptions of the game-play are rather weak, as the above examples demonstrate. I do not know how much Mitchell knows about Go. His narrator appears to be an observer of the game rather than a player. Thus many of the comments on the game do not ring true to a Go- player, although quite conceivably reflect how a game might appear to one with some knowledge of the mechanics of the game, but little practical experience. In particular, although we are not told the komi in the Enomoto/Shiroyama game, that they could differ by half a point in their score estimates is clearly an error.

Taking a wider view, the technical details of the game of Go as presented in TAJZ are probably less crucial than the thematic role the game plays in the novel. It serves as a metaphor at a number of levels. Most obviously, the interaction between Enomoto and Shiroyama both reflects and is reflected by the flow of the game. The text is perhaps overly explicit in the way it presents this. For example, after the game Shiroyama says ”you saw through my offensive on the Go board, but overlooked this simple stratagem” (p.450): perhaps that is a bit crude.

Rather more interesting is that the game of Go can be seen to stand as a symbolic representation of the wider themes of the novel. TAJZ presents a vivid contrast between the closed Japanese society of that historical period and the outward- looking trading/colonising instincts of the Dutch and the British. At the same time, similarities between these societies emerge repeatedly: both eastern and western cultures are seen to be strongly hierarchical, corrupt and yet possessing a humanitarian essence.

The game of Go is a game of sharing in which aggressive interaction is incidental rather than a primary aim. It is therefore uniquely placed to reflect these subtleties: it encompasses conflict and opposition, yet does so within a venture that is epitomised by balance and symmetry.

I enjoyed the novel, for reasons unconnected with the portrayal of Go. Provided Go-players approach the novel prepared to be tolerant of minor errors in the presentation of the game, the fine plotting, the careful characterisation and the stylish language provide what I consider to be a highly readable and enjoyable novel. I recommend it.

Page numbers refer to the trade paperback edition of the novel, published by Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2010).

Page numbers in the B-format paperback edition (2011): 340 = 403, 446 = 521.

Last updated Tue Apr 25 2017.
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