the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

Fiction, Historicized

In books on November 10, 2010 at 9:26 pm

At least three languages are spoken in David Mitchell’s newest novel—English (by a glory-obsessed Brit Captain), Dutch (by the novel’s protagonist, a clerk for a Trading Co. that doesn’t make it into the 20th century), and Japanese (by the village neighbors, villains, and love interests of Mr. de Zoet). But language and mistranslations are not the origin of tension in this strikingly realized historical fiction. Instead, Mitchell foregrounds the disorienting clashes of class and duty and expectations between Thousand Autumns’ characters, suggesting that passion or loss is tough to communicate in any language.

Various creatures—particularly butterflies—seem to have an easier time signaling the ebbs and flows of emotions in conflict. Maybe because their messages are not complicated by language: a grey cat points the way to escape for several main characters, a monkey reminds Mr. de Zoet that flirting doesn’t have to be painful, and those butterflies float into rooms in which a confounding letter or book is on the verge of being misunderstood and impart a simple message written in the colors (or absence of color) of their parchment-thin wings.

These more poetic touches, along with Mitchell’s gift with dialogue, help overcome what is, on the surface, a gratingly neo-orientalist plot: white dude wants asian chick… evil asian dude with supernatural powers locks chick in impenetrable snow (get it—it represents “purity”) fortress… white dude embraces asian culture without compromising his strong Christian beliefs… white dude gets asian chick in the end—well, that last part doesn’t quite happen. But it all seems a bit tired.

Still, at several points in Thousand Autumns, the numerous voices of the unique characters Mitchell populates the novel with seem to echo back to them, and they become almost self aware of (if not resistant towards) their stereotyped role in fiction. It’s a neat trick—De Zoet, in one perilous episode, appears to know that he cannot die at this juncture in the story, that there is a power (maybe God, maybe the Author) that would not let harm come to him.¬†Historical fiction, in Mitchell’s rendering, is history revealed as something itself fictional, constructed, and—to an empowering effect—something that unveils new and beautiful truths in what looks like repetition.

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