Cloud Atlas, published in 2004, is David Mitchell’s third novel and one that I read after watching the 2012 movie starring Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw, amongst other noted actors.
It is a story of epic proportions, cutting across time periods, cultures, gender, politics, sexuality, religion, capitalism and much more. Like 99% of all book-to-movie adaptations however, the book was better.
The movie itself was visionary, but fell short in a few places in terms of execution and limited time-frame for story-telling. This is where the novel comes out all guns blazing. David Mitchell mesmerised with some fantastic writing and story-telling. The story itself was basically 6 short stories linked together by a few recurring themes, such as the comet tattoo on each protagonist. Each story had a different style and feel to it, almost as if each one was written by a different writer.
“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind from scratching itself raw.”
The six protagonists of the stories are, in order of appearance, as follows:
- Adam Ewing
- Robert Frobisher
- Louisa Ray
- Timothy Cavendish
What made it interesting was how each story blended into the other and how they unravelled themselves back into each other. David Mitchell cleverly uses transitions here to create a story-within-a-story feel, multiplied by 6.
“A half-finished book is, after all, a half-finished love affair.”
The book starts in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary, on a voyage across the Pacific where he comes across a Maori plantation and the slavery within it. He records his voyages and adventures in a journal which is then found in Belgium in 1931 by Robert Frobisher, a bisexual, aspiring musical composer with a troubled past. He records his life in the form of letters he sends to his lover back home, Rufus Sixsmith.
Fast forward to California in 1975, Luisa Ray, a young journalist, caught up in a web of deceit and corruption, runs into the now old Rufus Sixsmith and reads the letters addressed to him. Luisa Ray’s adventure turns out to be a novel manuscript that is picked up by an old British publisher, Timothy Cavendish, and is set in the present day. He writes about his life which, subsequently, is turned into a movie.
The story now takes a gigantic leap into the future, to a dystopian society in Korea where capitalism has run amok and people are brainwashed by the leaders. An uprising is on the horizon, with Sonmi-451 being the face of that rebellion. The sixth story, the only one that is uninterrupted, is set in a post-apocalyptic future in Hawaii, where people have returned to their primitive state and worship a goddess named Sonmi, whose teachings since the rebellion live on.
“To the starving man, potato peelings are haute cuisine”
As mentioned before, the writing style for each novella is unique, which is what sets this novel apart.
Adam Ewing’s story is written like a pre-Victorian age novel. Robert Frobisher has elements of Romanticism in his, from scorned lovers to forbidden love, music and troubled pasts.
Luisa Ray’s tale reads like a classic crime-mystery novel, with equal parts suspense and high-octane chases, along with narrow escapes. Tim Cavendish is more of a comical monologue, but has its fun parts nevertheless.
Sonmi-451 is a sci-fi thriller set in the future, with conspiracies, corruption, apathy and ignorance engrained in day-to-day proceedings. Zachry’s story is set in a post-apocalyptic age. The writing style adopted for this particular segment makes it a challenge to navigate the initial parts. But once the story progresses, it becomes almost second-nature and the reader is able to navigate it seamlessly.
In all, each novella probably doesn’t have enough in itself to survive as a stand-alone, but once linked to each other (through a comet-shaped birthmark), make for a compelling and complex read.
“I believe there is another world waiting for us. A better world. And I’ll be waiting for you there.”
David Mitchell described it as:
“Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context…”
“Yet what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”
Apart from all this, the book is a treasure trove of many quotable and thought-provoking lines, a few of which have already been mentioned. More can be found here.
Mitchell provides a culminating and satisfying end to each novella, after cutting 5 of them off at intervals, only to bring them back to us with a befitting ending.
In the story, Robert Frobisher works on a musical project, called the ‘Cloud Atlas’ sextet, which is supposedly a revelation for his time and age, and which he thinks is the best thing he can offer to the world.
The movie rendition of it was a delight. It can be viewed here.
In a way, each story comprises each of the six parts of a sextet, which when played together, coalesces to form an elegant and refined tune that stays on your tongue for a long time to come.
The trailer for the film (which I found absolutely superb) can be viewed here too.