In Chinese and some other oriental languages, there are no tenses. I don’t know if that is why David Mitchell chose to write this novel entirely in the present tense. But as I got to about chapter 4 before I noticed, maybe they have a point. What I do know is that the writing has a great sense of immediacy. I don’t know if that is the result of his choice of his tense. But this is certainly a page turner. The compelling characters and fascinating plot twists also help, with the result that this is a great bit of storytelling and a thoroughly entertaining read.
It is also a great evocation of a particular time in history. In the Middle Ages, Europe was basically a backwater compared to the organised and populous regions on the other side of the Mediterranean and a long way behind the highly advanced civilisations of India and China. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Europe and the United States became the predominant economic and cultural powers on the planet. In between, there was an era when the Europeans were notable for their globe-trotting. But they were pretty much on a par with the people they met on their travels. They could understand the way other cultures worked and relate to them as more or less equals.
This was a period when European governments were weak and a lot of the exploration of the globe and the subsequent trading were down to private enterprise. The prototype was the VOC from Holland. Its English name is the Dutch East India company. They worked by raising capital in Europe which was used to create a trade network. Ships, ports, and warehouses were built. Workers were hired. Opportunities were identified. When it worked, it generated huge returns for shareholders. Holland benefited as well. It became one of the richest places on the planet. Other Europeans followed the model and also did well. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that the current wealth and power of modern Europe still owes much to the structures created by the VOC – and indeed a chunk of it can be directly traced back to the original revenues of the VOC itself.
The question this book attempts to answer is what was it like to actually be inside this system. I can’t say how successfully it has done it. But it certainly feels like it has it right. The title character, Jacob de Zoet is young, ambitious and basically decent. He needs to make his fortune to fund the marriage he desires, and the VOC offers a way he might be able to pull it off.
Trade requires both guile and honesty simultaneously. You can only trick a customer into buying something that they don’t need once. But equally, you can’t make much of a profit without keeping at least some of what you are up to secret. Moral choices become a daily chore. We see Jacob forging a signature to keep trade rolling one day. But later he balks at signing off some theft of the company’s stock.
The VOC lasted a couple of centuries and for most of that – possibly all of it – must have been the largest commercial operation in the world. It was able to do astonishing things. Most impressively, its IT system based on ink and paper was able to keep track of the earnings of its staff around the world and could be relied upon to pay them when they got back to Holland. As any manager will tell you – nothing gets done without people to do it. The ability to effectively deploy people around the globe, and keep them motivated, is extremely impressive. It was almost certainly the foundation of the VOC’s enormous success.
What did it feel like to be on the other side of the world doing hard and dangerous work? And this at a time when sending a letter home and getting a reply back might take 4 years. It was probably only bearable because you were confident of a large pot of money waiting for you when you got home. The bargain was basically give up a big chunk of your life to enjoy the rest of it in more comfort than you were likely to be able to afford while staying at home. This book gives you a pretty good idea of how it may have felt.