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Scenes and seamlessness in Thousand Autumns

November 14, 2010

There is a drawn out scene in Part One of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, that I particularly admire. In the scene, Jacob, the point of view character, is playing pool with Dr. Marinus.

As a reader, I begin to suspect that I understand more than Jacob, so in addition to simply reading the scene to find out what happens, I’m reading to find out if I’m right or if Jacob’s right. Interestingly, because Jacob is sympathetic and naive, I’m rooting for Jacob, but with an increasingly sinking feeling that he is being taken advantage of by Dr. Marinus.

First, the background. One of the people Jacob is getting to know on the tiny island of Dejima is the doctor, an educated Dutchmen not in the sway of the company. So far, Jacob has been rebuffed by the doctor, so he is surprised when the doctor pays him a call and invites him to play billiards. Jacob’s room has just been burglarized and the sketchbook he has filled with drawings of Miss Aibagawa, the woman he is in love with, is the only thing that is missing.

Jacob starts, therefore, in a weak position: the doctor knows more about Japanese culture and etiquette than he does; Jacob is worried about what his sketches will reveal to the thief; his friendliness toward the doctor has not be reciprocated.

We get an immediate indication that Dr. Marinus is in control of the situation in their interaction.

“‘In cases of burglary’–Marinus coughs–‘I prescribe a course of billiards.

‘Billiards, Doctor,’ Jacob vows, ‘is the last thing I shall be doing today'” (118).

The reader has only an inch of white space to ponder the doctor’s cough and the vehemence of Jacob’s response before Mitchell cuts to the next segment of the scene:

“Jacob’s cue ball sails up the table, rebounds off the bottom cushion, and glides to a half two inches from the top edge…” (118).

Without being told how or why, we know that the doctor caused Jacob to change his mind, despite his vow never to play. Mitchell writes Jacob’s intense emotional response and then pushes it up against the image of him playing billiards, inviting the reader to see the contradictions and step away, as it were, from Jacob and begin to watch the scene from a remove, fearing that Jacob is drawing inaccurate conclusions.

What we see is the two men playing pool, with Jacob indicating, in the space of half a page, that he plays much better than the doctor.

“…the doctor’s shot is misjudged…Easily, Jacob pockets both his and the red. … [T]he clerk shoots a tight series of cannons, quickly taking his score to fifty…The doctor, Jacob realizes, is a middling amateur at billiards” (119).

As Jacob becomes more confident, he pursues his true desire, which is to get information from the doctor about Miss Aibagawa. He does this in obvious ways, and while the doctor hands out some information, he says no to Jacob’s main request to accompany him to a meeting where Miss Aibagawa will be present. Here Jacob makes the misstep that confirms the reader’s apprehension. His intense desire to be near his love and his naive conclusions about the doctor’s level of play make him invite the doctor to a wager. If Jacob wins the game, the doctor will take him to the meeting. At this point, the reader is thinking–if Jacob is right that the doctor plays a lousy game of billiards, he will not accept the wager. He’s not stupid. If he considers Jacob’s offer, the worried feeling the reader has had for Jacob will be confirmed.

“Marinus lines up his shot, looking doubtful. ‘What is my prize?'” (121).

Overconfident Jacob replies, “Name it” (121).

“Six hours’ labor in my garden. Now pass me the bridge” (121).

The readers’ suspicions are confirmed as the doctor launches into a long story about himself, which, interestingly, includes the origins of his interest in botany–he was mistaken for a garden boy when he was dropped off to live with a distant relative and spent his first day there working under the tutelage of the gardener. During the story, we hear less about the pool playing, though we do get a few telling navigational points.

“Passing a hundred and fifty points, Jacob misses a short to let Marinus on the table” (122).

Because the previous paragraph was all about Marinus’s young life with a great many details about the garden in Holland, the line stands out, and with it, what comes next.

“In the garden, the slave Sjako is brushing aphids from the salad leaves” (122).

This is Dr. Marinus’s current garden, the garden that Jacob will be required to work in if he loses the bet.

“Marinus leans out the window and addresses him in fluent Malay. Sjako replies and Marinus returns to the game, amused” (122).

The reader can’t help but wonder what Marinus said to the slave, and whether it could be some joke about the fact that Jacob may be working there soon.

A couple paragraphs later, we are given another billiard detail. After Marinus misses a shot, Jacob commiserates. “Bad luck,” he says. “No such thing, in a game of skill,” Marinus responds (123) and again we have to wonder if this means that he misses the shot intentionally. Marinus goes on with the story of his young life for several more paragraphs until finally our suspicions are confirmed. The doctor asks Jacob what the score is, finds out he’s losing by more than 200 points, and yet suggests, “Shall we put our finishing post at a thousand and double the prizes?” he asks. “Are you promising you’ll take me to the Shirando Academy twice?” Jacob asks, thinking immediately of being seen there by Miss Aibagawa. The doctor responds, “Provided you are willing to dig horse manure into the beetroot beds for twelve hours.” “Very well, Doctor,” says Jacob, now considering whether he can get the lace on his best shirt repaired so that he might wear it to the academy. “I accept your terms” (124)

And here Mitchell does what he did earlier, when he concluded a scene by showing, in the next scene, what the outcome was. On the next page, a new chapter begins. “Jacob digs the last of the day’s horse manure into the beetroot beds and fetches water for the late cucumbers from the tarred barrels. He started his clerical work one hour early this morning so he could finish at four o’clock and begin repaying the twelves hours’ garden labor he owes the doctor” (125).

What I love about this is that the reader knows more than the narrator but sympathizes nonetheless; I love the humor in the jumps between scenes–the ellipsis. It all feels a bit like an inside joke: what’s revealed is done indirectly but so clearly that the reader can guess what’s coming but the confirmation is a pleasure.

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