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Foreign Devils

David McNeill
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell, Sceptre, 480 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0340921562 Japan has often been very badly served in English-language popular culture, an exotic backdrop for lantern-jawed foreigners who occupy the high moral plain over the cryptic, wily locals. Like stale supermarket sushi, that unnutritious staple the fictional encounter between the infatuated or baffled Westerner and the inscrutable Japanese never seems to completely disappear from the shelves, no matter how unappetising. Sofia Coppola’s mysteriously acclaimed Lost in Translation (2003) served up the usual mix of clichés and warped perspectives – part of a long tradition. Think of Michael Crichton’s bestselling Rising Sun (1992), with its daft, conspiratorial plot about Yakuza gangsters and corporate bosses sneakily waging economic war against an unsuspecting America; or Michael Douglas in the Ridley Scott movie Black Rain (1989), battling to stop more Japanese mobsters from flooding the US with fake dollars in revenge for the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima. David Mitchell’s book, then, is that rarest of fictional beasts: a Japan-set story that doesn’t patronise its subjects. His Japanese are recognisably real people: complex, nuanced, capable of love and passion as well as treachery and coldness. Even more unusually, Mitchell’s Westerners ‑ Dutch, Irish and English among them – are often greedy, corrupt and violent. No more high ground here. His account of the clash between the two sides in the dying days of Dutch power in Asia has already been dubbed a modern classic and is a work of great originality and vision. Set in 1799, the novel transports us to Dejima, a walled, man-made island in Nagasaki Bay then the only official conduit into the closed kingdom of Japan. Once a secluded fishing village, Nagasaki was plucked seemingly at random from history’s backwater by an accident of fate after a Portuguese ship came ashore nearby. The country’s military government – or Shogunate – later isolated foreign adventurers on Dejima like a virus, keeping their guns, crucifixes and foreign ideas at arm’s length from the mainland. Portuguese Catholic missionaries and Dutch traders were a particular concern. Having watched the Spanish ruthlessly pillage the Philippines after converting the population to Catholicism, the Shogunate perceived – correctly – that foreigners could destabilise the delicate balance of power inside the country and corrode the foundations of local power. In an interview this year Mitchell explained why he was attracted by the idea of setting his novel in Nagasaki…

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