Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A novelist finds his island by getting lost


In order to find what we are really seeking, we may first have to get lost. As I wrote in The Three “Only" Things, this is the cardinal navigational law of serendipity: You can only get to the magic kingdom by getting lost. You get there when you think you are going somewhere else and fall off the maps. Here’s a current literary example.

David Mitchell relates that around Christmas in 1994, in Nagasaki, he got off at a wrong tram stop and stumbled upon “a greenish moat and cluster of warehouses from an earlier century.” This was his first encounter with Dejima, a trading factory of the Dutch East India Company built on a man-made island in Nagasaki harbor. For two and a half centuries, when Japan was closed to the outside world, this was the sole point of contact between Japan and the west.
    Twelve years and much research after alighting at the wrong tram stop, Mitchell published his extraordinary historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, in which most of the action unfolds on or near to Dejima at the end of the 18th century. The novel  richly deserves its tremendous critical and commercial success. Mitchell succeeds in transporting us into the mental and physical worlds of two very different peoples in a very different time. He is a master of what he amusingly calls “Bygonese”, conveying how people thought and talked in an earlier time in a way that never seems labored or antiquarian. 
    Mitchell's vividly realized characters will linger in the reader's memory.Some of their statements stir and sear the soul, as when Orito, the selfless Japanese midwife, says near the end of the story:

When pain is vivid, when decisions are keen-edged, we believe that we are the surgeons. But time passes, and one sees the whole more clearly, and now I perceive us as surgical instruments used by the world.

Dejima, the invented island, is indelible among Mitchell's huge cast.  And the author found it by getting lost.

Dutch plan of Dejima c1825

2 comments:

Marit Standal Skyum said...

An artist friend made a collection of paintings called "Traverse le gris". His idea was to give an impression of being completely lost. Like in a dense fog where our eyesight or senses is of no use. You have to search very hard inside for every skill or talent you have to get the courage to move forward, because there's nothing that can give you a direction. I like this idea, because the image tells me how important it is to find the source for our own power.

Junayad said...

just finished the 1000 Autumns, and loved it!