David Mitchell is both a novelist and a literary saboteur. The author of five novels, including the forthcoming The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, the British born Mitchell has been hailed as a genius, awarded numerous literary honors, and short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize twice.
Yet, flowing beneath this popular praise has been a heady undercurrent of critical discontent. Those suspicious of Mitchell’s work accuse him of being a magician, a ventriloquist, a literary trickster. In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell ranged through a wide spectrum of authorial voices, echoing writers as diffuse as John Grisham, Ursula LeGuin, and Haruki Murakami, and many critics saw a writer extremely adept at aping other writers’, but one without the ability to write as himself. Tom Bissell, writing in the New York Times, suggested that because of Mitchell’s knack for dramatic shifts in narrative voice, that “Cloud Atlas is the sort of book that makes ambition seem slightly suspect.”
But few of us go through life speaking in a single voice, so why should we expect the same of authors? This charge of ventriloquism is based on the assumption that we are all only (and should be) a single person. We speak differently at work than we do with friends. To survive, life requires that every person use a multiplicity of languages. Mitchell’s prose embodies this truth. We hear voices, not a voice in our heads, and this is what Mitchell brings to the page. In trying to express reality accurately, Mitchell has to interpret this cacophony. For Mitchell, truth is found in the chorus, not the solo.
Nowhere is Mitchell’s verbal adaptability so clearly an asset as in his most recent novel. In The Thousand Autumns he renders a convincing portrait of an early 19th century clash of civilizations in which Dutch traders try to spread the West’s great truths, Christianity and capitalism, to Japan. The book’s title character is a clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company stationed on a man-made island off of Nagasaki whose integrity and moral convictions lead him to a bitter confrontation with his employers. The novel has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster period drama: unrequited loves, samurai sword fights, a secret cult, palace intrigues, and an unforgettable evil villain. Yet, throughout the work, while it’s obvious that Mitchell understands the techniques that make Dan Brown’s conspiracies bestsellers, The Thousand Autumns, at its core, is a novel about humanity’s often overlooked attributes and its more glistening failures.
A novel written by an English author about the ancient Far East could easily descend into stereotypical set pieces about the mystical nature of the Orient. But Mitchell avoids this, in large part, because of his verbal dexterity. The sections of The Thousand Autumns written from the perspective of the Japanese characters are just as convincing as those written from that of the Dutch de Zoet. Because Mitchell can craft such fully-formed characters, the reader is more able to appreciate how, regardless of our birth country, we all contain as much potential for beauty as we do for hypocrisy and rancor. De Zoet is a man of contradictions, simultaneously engaged to a woman back in Holland that he may never see again and in love with a Japanese woman he shuns when she needs him most. In the end, what’s remarkable about the story’s various narrators is that while they all use language and think in remarkably divergent ways, they all share an emotional intensity that will be excruciatingly familiar to every reader.
Hopefully, then, The Thousand Autumns finally puts to rest the notion that Mitchell’s narrative shifts are bouts of literary excess and showmanship. Even more so, perhaps it will lead us to question our own expectations about authorial voice. In her seminal New York Review of Books essay on President Obama, Zadie Smith argued that Obama’s success as a politician was, in part, driven by the fact that he was able to speak in different voices to different audiences. Mitchell may not be a politician, but The Thousand Autumns is yet another reminder of why linguistic flexibility is such a key component of human existence.