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Cosmic Station Master


There are those who would say that such a desire to colonise the world imaginatively is some grandiose coping mechanism, or some species of megalomania. “Firstly, you’re implying that novelists are horrid little megalomaniacs…and I would agree with you completely! Even a joke told in a bar involves that power aspect: You have your audience; you have captured them; you are saying what’s going on; you are in control of this small, brief universe that blinks into existence during the duration of the joke. We are hard-wired to want stories, and the supply side of that is guaranteed by the gratification you feel as a writer when you do it.”

“Secondly – and I’m in the odd position of trying to tell you what I think your question is really about – I think you are ultimately asking whether or not by representing the world, you can come to own it in some way. Well, at some level, yep. To seek to describe the world is to seek to own it. Of course, I know you can’t. That’s nonsense. To describe China is not to own China. Rationally, you can’t own China, or anywhere else. But describing it is the best you can do – and it’s good enough for me. I love it…I love writing. It’s a drug.”

Sometimes Mitchell’s ability to convincingly inhabit an array of imagined characters, and his talent for disappearing into a narrative makes him seem like the David Bowie of modern literature: He certainly shares the Thin White Duke’s knack for mainstream experimentalism. But, despite all the changes – and accusations that he lacks his own narrative voice – Mitchell’s books share a bedrock of liberal humanism. For all the Panoptical vision and polyphonic narrative sprees, the work appears to be built on sturdy core convictions, such as a belief that humility and communication are endlessly important. E.M. Forster is a writer whom Mitchell admires greatly, and he has taken the famous humanist’s ‘Only connect…’ epigram to heart. “The orient is all about signals,” one character reflects in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet , and signals and connections are an ongoing concern in Mitchell’s work. Moreover, the stories seem underlaid by the belief that avoiding arrogance is an effective way to avoid hurting oneself and others. In this respect, Mitchell’s work shares the parable-like aspect of William Trevor‘s stories. “Yes, it’s a belief, and I would agree with William Trevor. In my case, avoiding arrogance is self-protection, but there’s another angle to it, which is simply professional competence. I believe that an arrogant, up-his-own-arse novelist becomes like an air/sea rescue operator who develops a fear of heights and water. I think that’s the beginning of the end.”

Perhaps this partly explains why Mitchell dislikes speaking about the likelihood of his winning the Booker Prize (number9dream and Cloud Atlas were both short-listed for the Booker Prize, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet has just been omitted from this year’s shortlist). “Yeah, I’m really pleased when people respond positively to my work. I don’t take it for granted and I’m honoured. And when people fork out hard-earned cash for my work…I have never quite gotten over it, and I don’t intend to. However, at a review level, if you start congratulating yourself on the good ones, and start thinking: ‘Yes, yes, I am a literary lion.’ Well…You can see examples of older novelists who have done that and you can see what their work is like now. They don’t edit themselves properly”, he says with undisguised scorn. “There are still good books swimming around in those six hundred and fifty page things, but there’s no one to say: ‘Now, look!’ The benchmark is to imagine that every book is your first novel and you need to get an agent and an editor interested in it. Potentially, it’s going to go “plop” into the slush pile, and it has to be able to drag itself out on its own merits and creep over to the editor and say: ‘Look, I’m so brilliant you can’t not publish me.’ But it’s the book that has to do that and not your name. Once you start relying on your name to be doing that, it’s goodnight Vienna. The antidote to that is to keep focusing on the work, and keep studying the masters – and there are several lifetimes of masterly books to read, luckily for us – so that you can learn their lessons.”

It is difficult to imagine The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet not being published had it been David Mitchell’s debut. Set in 1799 Japan, the story brings back to life the artificial island of Dejima, an actual trading post manned by the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki harbour. The sole trading point between Europe and the then isolationist Japan, the site was a portal between two mutually suspicious cultures. Thousand Autumns combines adventure, historical romp and unpredictable love story, as the devout young clerk, Jacob, seeks to end corrupt business practices. Although more conventionally linear than the author’s previous offerings, there is enough skewed virtuosity here to keep hardcore Mitchellheads happy. Something Mitchell has always had is a firm grasp of structure and tone. Nothing feels forced. Even when he spot-welds various attempts at a book together, Mitchell never flogs his readers a ‘cut and shut’ narrative. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet scans beautifully, despite being the amalgamation of three separate stabs at the novel. It also marks a shift from the first to the third person.

“Chapter-wise, there is three times thirteen with one outrider (I mean, those two short sections at the very end). The third person narrator is, in a way, a first person who just says “he” and “she”, instead of “I”. For Jacob, I designed a narrative viewpoint camera helmet. I got the idea from talking to a couple of friends who write in the third person (Lawrence Norfolk and A.S. Byatt). I said: ‘How do you do it? Because I’m writing Jacob in the first person and it’s not working.’ The answer is that there’s a spectrum of third person narratives. There’s Henry Fielding at one end where it’s: ‘Welcome to my book! Come in, come in. Let’s pretend we’re on a stagecoach…’ That’s obviously a full third person narrative and, at the other end of the spectrum, you have a much more ghostwritten third person narrative, which is more modern and more commonly done nowadays. In Jacob, there’s enough extremism (with a small “e”) going on anyway. We are already in another world, so I didn’t want an annoyingly entertaining dinner guest type narrator that you can’t get rid of in there as well. I needed a much more discreet narrator. However, you have got to decide what you are going to do about thought. Whose thoughts are you going to see and hear? Everyone’s? Where do you stop? So I thought: ‘One head and one thought helmet at a time.’ Whoever is wearing the helmet, you can get their thoughts, but no one else’s. So that was the useful constitution that I wrote to govern the use of the third person in this book.” While this is a “constitution” that authors have used for quite a while now, Mitchell is clearly intrigued to add it to his narrative repertoire.

“Structurally, each book begins with a helmet-wearer who does not wear it elsewhere in those three books. Then, the number of helmet-wearers increases throughout the three main books. Book one has got one helmet-wearer (apart from the outrider at the very beginning, which features Miss Aibagawa). The main helmet-wearer in book one is Jacob De Zoet. Book two has the helmet-wearers Miss Aibagawa and Ogawa Uzaemon – the translator. And book three has three helmet-wearers: Jacob again; Captain Penhaligon, the Englishman; and the magistrate, Shiroyama. So you are going from a one-stroke engine, to a two-stroke engine, on to a three-stroke engine which, I think, accelerates the narrative as you read. So the outriders are Miss Aibagawa in book one; the old woman herbalist, Octane, in book two, and in book three it’s the slave Weh, from the island of Weh. Is that simple or complex?”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is an historical novel with a rather modern feel and this has much to do with its filmic approach, as Mitchell jump-cuts from scene to scene. The literary screenplay element is added to by Mitchell’s use of staccato sentences, in the manner of a James Ellroy novel. This modern rendering of an “olde worlde” environment lends Thousand Autumns a strangely pan-historical feel. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the book was penned by a wandering, five thousand year-old vampire, rather than a forty one year-old from Malvern. This mostly works, although, arguably, some of the more enlightened views expressed by such “good” characters as Jacob tend towards the anachronistic. For instance, when Miss Aibagawa tells him that her name, translated into English, means ‘indigo river’, Jacob replies: “You sound like a poem.” He then upbraids himself ruefully by thinking: “And you sound like a flirty lecher.” Isn’t this a somewhat modern, ‘New Man’-ish sentiment? “I would probably disagree with you that men in the late eighteenth century didn’t think to themselves in italics: ‘You flirty lecher’. Gender encounters are neither ancient or modern: they are pretty universal. Obviously, the gender politics of any given society alters over time and over geography. But we have a one-to-one situation here. Men have chatted women up for many thousands of years and are quite aware of how they are perceived as they are doing it. But I still like your five thousand year-old vampire image. Doctor Marinus, now he is more like an ancient vampire!”

One of the most enigmatic and endearing characters in The Thousand Autumns, Doctor Marinus is a compelling mixture of vortex-like cynicism and boundless idealism. As a parting shot, I wonder how Mitchell feels about this Time Lord-esque character, and if it is true that he will be regenerated in Mitchell’s next novel? “Oh, I opened my big mouth, didn’t I? I did open my big mouth! Let’s just say he will possibly be resurrected…dot, dot, dot. Miss Aibagawa is not immortal, I’m afraid. Doctor Marinus’ character? He has no time for politesse. When it matters, he is compassionate but, when he is called upon to perform the right social dances, he couldn’t give a toss, and he is quite consistent in this. But, yes, he is a man of integrity…which is a universal quality. Luckily for us.”

But man cannot live by stories alone and, having thanked me humbly for thinking about his work, this most amiable of megalomaniacs is off to cook his family’s dinner, and dream up additions to his increasingly spectacular model train set.


David Gavan was educated in London, and has written for the South London Press, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish Examiner, Time Out, Record Collector, AU magazine and The Quietus. He currently lives in Co Meath, Ireland.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 6th, 2010.