Dreaming up the non-existent
This article is from 2010.
David Mitchell isn’t known for his simple approach to storytelling. His most recognisable work, the Booker-shortlisted Cloud Atlas, was described as having a ‘Rubik’s cube structure’. Ambitious and unconventional, it melted genres of airport page-turners, sci-fi nightmare and historical memoirs. ‘Gardeners have got a compulsion to get outside and get earth on their hands,’ the author explains, matter-of-factly. ‘IT people feel compelled to make things happen through digital code. And writers, our compulsion is to dream up the non-existent. It’s simply what we do.’
Mitchell’s latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is dreamt up on the man-made island of Dejima, an 18th century trading post outside Nagasaki. Mitchell stumbled on a Dejima museum while working in Japan during the 90s, and immediately thought the island – ‘a patch of land no bigger than Trafalgar Square’ – would make a perfect claustrophobic backdrop. The main character, de Zoet is a strait-laced accounts clerk. While trying to tiptoe neutrally through the corrupt dealings of sailors and power-hungry officials, he falls in love with a disfigured woman, Orito.
Mitchell paints the picture in frilly, fact-dripping detail, but it’s his translation of body languages – the micro-gestures that start and end wars, or make or break marriages – that sets him apart. ‘There is always more to people than there appears to be, and thank heavens for that. It’s good when fiction reflects that. When it doesn’t, you’ve got two dimensionality and cliché. How dare I expect people to spend time and money if that’s what they’re getting?’
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