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The Luminaries vs The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Jonny_Sweet_itcher_contributorThere’s something irresistibly romantic about tales of strangers in a strange land, especially when strange goings-on occur amid a maelstrom of strange characters. The Luminaries vs The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a battle of two of the most accomplished novels in this sphere – which one comes out on top? ~ Jonny Sweet

Many people read fiction as an escape from the tedium of everyday life. What better way to escape, then, than through the medium of a character having outlandish adventures in a land and culture far removed from their own? Both Jacob de Zoet and Walter Moody are transplanted into a society which is completely alien to them; and through their experiences, the reader can feel themselves in a similar state of bewilderment and exhilaration, as well.

While The Luminaries is something of a murder mystery populated by caricatured individuals and grandiose drama, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is more an exploration of an outsider’s ability to integrate himself in an exclusive and unaccommodating society. With both, the reader is instantly sucked into the drama and compelled to turn the pages until no more remain.
But which book does it better? If you listen to the critics, Eleanor Catton’s work probably shades it; while David Mitchell’s novel was only long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2010, Catton scooped the gong in 2013. However, opinions are like umbrellas – everybody’s keen to parade theirs around above their head and no-one seems overly concerned at poking other people in the eyes with their own.
Having said that, prepare to shield your own peepers from my umbrella opinions as I discuss Mitchell vs Catton, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet vs The Luminaries.

Similarities between The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and The Luminaries

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As mentioned above, both novels feature fish-out-of-water protagonists who struggle to find their feet in a new land. In Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell has created a conscientious and consummate professional, whose morals of honesty and integrity come into jarring conflict with the sometimes xenophobic Japanese mentality and the corrupt ideals of his compatriots.

On the other hand, Eleanor Catton’s Walter Moody is a naïve and enthusiastic prospector, who, fresh off the boat into New Zealand, is keen to find his fortune among the gold mines of the burgeoning country. Both young men are seeking to better themselves in a land that is far from their own, set in a time that is much further back than our own, and find themselves amongst men of dubious morals and with very different mind-sets than themselves.

“…Both characters are simultaneously thrust among the action…”

Indeed, both men are introduced into the novel in similar circumstances. We first meet Jacob de Zoet as he is taking notes of the trial of the decadent Daniel Snitker, accused of dereliction of duty. As such, he is something of a peripheral figure in the scene, and though he is ostensibly part of the panel which will decide Snitker’s fate, it is clear that he is an outsider among his colleagues.

Meanwhile, Walter Moody walks into a room containing 12 men (reminiscent of a jury) who initially appear to be judging him, before asking his opinion of an obscure mystery in which all are involved but none can fathom – therefore converting him into judge. Both characters are simultaneously thrust among the action, whilst still being fairly removed from it.

Furthermore, both novels are dominated by themes of greed and revenge. Both run to considerable distances but both maintain a fast enough pace that the reader has no time to notice or despair of its length. In this sense, both could be considered epics to a certain extent; though while The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an epic in the traditional sense (in terms of length and the narration of a life which it covers), The Luminaries is more of an epic of style and design.


Differences between The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and The Luminaries

Image Source: National Post

Herein lies the main crux of the difference between the two novels; their design.

Eleanor Catton has chosen almost everything about her work (the title, the characters, their interaction with each other, even the length of the chapters) to reflect celestial bodies. Each of the twelve men present in the Crown Hotel represents a different size of the zodiac, while there are a further seven characters which correspond to planets, stars or other heavenly bodies in the night sky. Each character interacts with the others as they might do on their orbital pathways, and the length of each chapter diminishes notably in imitation of the waning of the moon. Such intricate planning of the novel is the key reason for its success and for the plaudits and prizes it has received from various sources.

David Mitchell, meanwhile, expended similar efforts in painstakingly mapping out his novel… but not from a design point of view. Instead, Mitchell focused meticulously on the minor details; going to enormous lengths to ensure that every facet of his narrative was true to the era in which it was set. As a result, Mitchell found the process an exhausting one; in his own words:

“It was tough. It took me four years. It almost finished me off before I finished it off.”

Therefore, while Mitchell’s work is more of an authentic reproduction of the sometimes unlikely but never impossible adventures of a young clerk seeking to assert his integrity amongst a throng of thieves and liars, Catton’s is an exercise in form. Events are often implausible and even unbelievable throughout, and a plethora loose threads are left dangling at the end (for discussion of such unanswered questions and possible plot inconsistencies, see this forum on Goodreads. Mitchell’s is a consistent novel, Catton’s an inconsistent conceit.


Which is Better: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or The Luminaries?

 All this comes down to for me, fundamentally, is style versus substance. Catton’s novel is an immense achievement of style and form manipulation in achieving a structure, plot and cast of characters that are so totally in line with the title of the book. For this fact alone, it deserves all of the plaudits it receives.

However, for me, Mitchell’s is a far deeper and more comprehensive piece of literature. The author put in the hard hours to make sure his story was temporally accurate and he followed through with all of his narrative threads. The Luminaries are a collection of larger-than-life figures portraying the heavenly bodies aboard our heads and connected by a mysterious pattern; The Thousand Autumns are a true reflection of what life must have been like for a headstrong and honest clerk seeking to find his fortune in a faraway land.

Because of this, I personally find David Mitchell’s novel more compelling; more satisfying; more complete.


What’s Your Verdict?

Both novels begin with scenes set in or reminiscent of a courtroom; let’s end this article with you as judge. In the case of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet vs The Luminaries, how does the jury respond?
Leave your verdict in the comments section below.
I′m Jonny, an English Literature graduate who decided careers and mortgages were too mundane, and travelling, film, music and books were much more enticing. I have recently made a very comfortable nest for myself in Santiago de Chile, and on itcher Mag where I regularly contribute eloquent waffle on all manner of media.
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