Now that we’ve said our goodbyes and moved to our disparate points on the continent, I thought I’d begin our little experiment in letters over the next couple of months.
I’m in Toronto, my technical hometown, though I haven’t lived here since I was seven. You’d like it, if you’ve never been. People say it’s like Chicago, but in many ways it reminds me much of Northeastern American cities like Boston. We’re in a neighborhood called The Annex, which borders The University of Toronto. I’ve cribbed a photo from raisethehammer.org:
It’s a good place to try to relax and get back to writing (which is the goal for the next few months, no?).
I’m commemorating my return to Canada by reading Robertson Davies‘ Deptford Trilogy, but I’ll get to that later (I’m not far enough along into it to comment, though I’ll have more to say about Davies in the days ahead). Instead, I thought we might be able to talk a little bit about David Mitchell, since we’ve both finished books of his recently: you with Cloud Atlas, me with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’d recommend de Zoet if you liked Cloud Atlas at all.
I wish I had the book with me, but the damned thing is huge, and having it solely to quote from doesn’t make a lot of sense when I’m trying to keep room for presents in my bags. The writing, as in Cloud Atlas, is stellar, but what strikes me about this book, now seeing it in respect to his other work, is how well Mitchell subverts expectations through presentation. That was clearly the case in Cloud Atlas, but it’s a little more subtle here. Let me try to explain without giving anything away.
The book is told entirely from a close third-person which hops between the main characters, except for one small chapter at the beginning of the third section. There, apropos of nothing, the narration dives into the mind of a lowly slave who has absolutely no bearing on the plot. The section comes and goes, and in a sense it is totally superfluous – there’s no new character development, no plot progression, and the slave is never mentioned again after these few pages. So why does Mitchell make this formal move at that point? And what purpose does it serve?
I’ve got a couple of ideas, all of which have to do with the place of race in the novel. This is a book about colonialism: it takes place on a Dutch trading post off the coast of Nagasaki, where the only interaction between the Empire of Japan and the western world happens between a few clerks and interpreters. The large-scale story is, of course, about the clash of civilizations as they head into modernity (the book’s about a lot more than that, actually). But throughout the interactions between the Europeans and Asians, the African lurks in the background (the slave may not be African, I can’t quite remember, but he is dark skinned, and can’t help but represent the continent). As the two “great civilizations” clash in an effort to maintain dominance, the ones they’ve already dominated go unnoticed. Throughout the book the slaves are mentioned, abused, treated fairly by the more progressive minds, but stay firmly in the background. Like the stricken men at the beginning of Heart of Darkness, they are not given the power to become actors in this story.
And yet, the only section where someone is aloud to speak for themselves, to address the reader as “I” is about one of these dark men. I’m not trying to say that Mitchell thinks he’s giving his story a racial corrective, or something like that. Instead, the section comments on the fact that these men are always there, observing the scene without comment, although they are “free in their thoughts,” as the narrator says. The chapter is not just trying to point out that the slaves have a rich internal life (that’s a bit precious, honestly), but that their internal lives are just as tied to the story’s events as the main characters, though they, and we as the readers, haven’t paid them much mind. It’s an interesting and subtle way to do that. The chapter reminds us that every event here is observed by another pair of eyes – something that few books do well. It doesn’t further the plot, but it cements the world of the book by giving it one more perspective. It’s a beautiful chapter as well, heartbreaking in its longing for a home long destroyed by empire. Thinking of this book in relation to post-colonial literature, this slave is similar to Robinson Crusoe‘s Friday, except Mitchell has bestowed him with a tongue.
I wondered if that was too jumbled an account. I suspect I’ll be thinking more about that chapter as time has gone on. Hope your drive went well.
Looking forward to hearing from you,