Reading “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” was another amazing moment in my education about what historical fiction can be.
My first watershed moment occurred earlier this year, when I read “Signal & Noise” by John Griesemer. I devoured the whole 593-page novel, all the while thinking, “Oh YES! Now this is the kind of engrossing story I want to learn how to tell with my fiction.”
But today I’m talking about Mitchell. Again. I know I’ve already glowed about the innovative complexity and thematic wonders of “Cloud Atlas.”
“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” Mitchell’s latest, has a more traditional structure, with the title character being one of several point-of-view characters. The story’s about a young Dutchman, who, in order to win the favor of his beloved’s father, agrees to clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company at a trading post on Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay, for five years.
Jacob de Zoet is set up as a fair and impartial man. His is a voice to believe in, and his careful observations lead the reader to understand this unusual place. When the book opens, in 1799, Dejima was the only port Japan opened to the West, and the Dutch had a monopoly on it.
As the novel progresses, Jacob becomes personally entwined in Japanese politics and the lives of the other foreigners on Dejima. He’s still rational, but his beliefs are tested and changed by being exiled from home. Mitchell invites us into a moment in history that feels real, whole and true. The day after finishing the novel, I went back and reread the first two chapters because I wanted to prolong the experience.
Note that I said “feels” real. Mitchell addressed, in his afterword, the challenge of creating authentic dialogue in historical novels. I’ve struggled with that in my work-in-progress–trying to write conversations in English that are supposed to sound like 19th century French. Here’s what he had to say:
“To a degree, the historical novelist must create a sort of dialect–I call it ‘Bygonese’–which is inaccurate but plausible. Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a new pine dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.”
Mitchell goes on to talk about pitfalls and anachronisms that sneak into such endeavors. In fact, the whole afterword, about historical fiction and its place in literature, is well worth reading.
Years ago, I fell in love with Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” in part due to his made-up early American language. Sheer brilliance. And now, thanks to Mitchell’s essay, I have a phrase to explain it–“inaccurate but plausible.” I love the idea of creating “Bygonese” and want to know about other writers’ experiences with creating such dialogue.
Have you written historical fiction, or speculative fiction, or fantasy, or dialogue in another language, where you’ve had to substitute English words or phrases and create your own rules or even your own dictionary? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences, challenges and successes.