As is my wont, I’m continuing to eliminate my review backlog by pitting similar books against each other in winner-take-all, head-to-head competition. I’ll start by telling you how they’re similar, then give a brief overview of each book, and finally pick a winner.
How they are similar: Both are weighty literary novels that take place in the 19th Century and feature real people and/or institutions. Please, don’t refer to them as historical fiction. Both novels feature protagonists named Jacob/Jakob who are the sons of pious men. Women from their their pasts feature prominently in their respective stories. Both novels have much to say about the chasm between the plans that men make and the hands that life deals them. Both novels deserve much more attention than they are getting here.
In the far corner wearing blue trunks: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
David Mitchell is an author that I had always planned to read, but somehow I never got around to it. His novel Cloud Atlas is often referred to as a modern masterpiece, and his reported experimentation with genre seemed like it would be very much my thing. I was determined not to let another Mitchell novel slip by unread.
Thousand Autumns takes place at the dawn of the 19th century. Japan is a a closed country and is overtly hostile to Western influences, particularly religion. A small man-made island off of Nagasaki is as close as the representatives of Japan’s only trading partner, the Dutch East Indies Company are typically allowed. The titular Jacob de Zoet finds himself employed as an accountant for the Company. He’s the son of a minister, and is himself honest almost to a fault. He has gone to Japan to earn his fortune so that he can be worthy of the woman who has promised to await his return.
Of course, lots of unplanned things can happen when you’ve found yourself on the other side of the world with little or no communication home and an inherently limited system of justice. It is noted in the novel that the Japanese used poetic names on its maps, like “The Valley of a Thousand Autumns.” This is contrasted with the rigid and austere Japanese society that is bound by tradition and precedent. Jacob’s life is similarly lacking in poetry. The novel is at once literary and a historical thriller with a star-crossed love story thrown in for good measure. Thousand Autumns is a stunning epic of a novel. I loved it.
In the other corner, wearing green trunks: A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell
A Curable Romantic had several things going for it before I even picked it up. Author Joseph Skibell is a professor at Emory University, and I do love to support the home team when I can. The novel is published by Algonquin Books, which seems to be a home of strong, boundary-pushing literature that is also wonderfully readable. This one also jumped onto the top of the reading pile.
A Curable Romantic takes place in the 19th century, mostly in Vienna, Austria, though other locales in Eastern and Western Europe make cameo appearances. Jakob has fled his shtetl in Eastern European home to escape the pious father whose “Old Testament” style of justice is meted out with remarkably cruelty. He becomes a poor doctor and a Zelig-like character in modern Austria, befriending the notable men in and around Vienna.
Two of the most notable men that Jakob befriends are Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and Dr. Ludovic Zamenhof, the father of the Esperanto universal language. It’s no coincidence that Jakob becomes drawn to these “father of-” men. Jakob seems constantly in search of a new father figure as he tries to make a clean break with his past. But that past literally haunts him throughout the novel.
Although the title describes Jakob as a “curable” romantic, the opposite argument appears to be made within. Jakob is never really free from the superstitions and beliefs of his shtetl life, and he never truly sheds his romantic notions of life and how it should be lived.
The clash between tradition and modernity is on full display in A Curable Romantic, with Jakob poised precariously between the two worlds. This is a big, thick novel that is amazing in it scope. I loved it.
The Winner: This was the most difficult head-to-head battle to judge yet. It was a tough choice, but… I was such a huge fan of James Clavell’s Shogun and the bearded awesomeness of Richard Chamberlain in the mini-series that I’m not sure that A Curable Romantic had a chance. But where Shogun still bears the cheesy taint of the late 70′s, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is very much a cheese-free literary gem. Yet, it would make an awesome mini-series, too. Of course, Richard Chamberlain must play the role of a corrupt Dutch trader. Get me Hollywood on the phone!