Sunday, May 12, 2013

Karma in the Psalms

I'm not sure that I can explain exactly what it is that I liked about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell, but I tore through it, and kept trying to sneak away to find time to read more. 

Set in 1799, the story is based in Dejima, which was an island in the port of Nagasaki.  At that time, the Japanese would not allow foreigners into Japan proper, but they had allowed the Dutch to establish a trading post on Dejima.  Dejima is full of politics among the Dutch, and more complicated politics between the Dutch and the Japanese.  DeZoet is a sincere character, who strives to maintain his integrity.  He is more respectful of the Japanese culture than most of his compatriots, and even makes efforts to learn the language.  Through the course of the story, Jacob falls in love, fights injustice, and stays true to himself. 

What is it about talking cats in books set in Japan?  There was a talking cat here, reminding me of the character in Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami who talked to cats.  Apparently, it's not just a Japanese thing.  When I was googling around about this, I found lots of YouTube videos purporting to feature cats speaking Japanese, but I also found this site, where avid readers posted a huge list of books set all over the world and in outer space, where the cats talk.  So, if you are interested in books including talking cats . . . . Funny that no one listed The Cat in the Hat which has to be the most famous talking cat book ever.

In Dejima, the Dutch were not allowed to practice Christianity at all, and had to turn over all of their Christian artifacts if they wanted to live there.  Jacob managed to conceal his family's book of psalms, which had been given to him by his father.  Although The Thousand Autumns was not an overtly religious book, my two favorite quotes both had to do with religion.  The first is the thirty-seventh Psalm.  It goes a little like this:

"Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of inequity.  For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.  Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in land, and verily thou shalt be fed. . ."

I had no idea that I liked a psalm, but I like that one.  Jacob tries to live his life by those words, and he does a pretty good job of it.  The other quote that I liked is "we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love."  That may have been applicable in 1800, but it is certainly true in the modern day.

Mitchell also returned to his question of whether there is a light at the end of the working man's tunnel, which he first explored in the Sonmi chapters of Cloud Atlas.  As in Cloud Atlas, certain members of the society are slaving away at a truly terrible labor, with the belief that if they only do it for 20 years, they will be allowed to retire and be reunited with their families.  A little inquiry punches holes in the propaganda.  By returning to this question again in an entirely separate book, Mitchell is clearly posing a challenge to his readers.  Do you love your job, or do you just plan to suffer through it for another 10 or 20 or 30 years so that you can enjoy your golden years?  What if those golden years never come?  Mitchell wants us to realize that what we are living now is our life, not just something to do until we get to our real life in the future.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2010.  It was also a NYT Notable book for that year.  This is the 11th book that I read for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next up on paper:  The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman

Still Listening to:  Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  Yes, I finally got it.


  1. I also really have a positive impression of that book (it's been some time since I read it, though), and couldn't put my finger on why. Good writing, though. I know this is controversial but I might have liked it more than Cloud Atlas.

    1. I'm with you. Cloud Atlas was not my favorite, but I absolutely loved Black Swan Green!


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