A Literary Symphony in B Major – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

It was the first time that I attended the meetings of our book club. As it is with groups, little conversations sprout here and there. One conversation rippled within my hearing range, which was about trying out David Mitchell’s novels.

The words came from a Haruki Murakami fan. That member feasted on his books, and indeed, it’s high time to dip fingers on other goods. It stuck inside my head. Who is this David Mitchell? A local writer once gave away copies of Cloud Atlas and perennially claims a David Mitchell novel as one of her favorites. And then just a few weeks after, a handful of us from the book club decided to read it.

Which turned out to be a revelation. I don’t think I would have ever sampled any of David Mitchell’s works had I not heard that conversation. I don’t think that the people that I’ve read this book with ever turned to be completists of Mitchell’s works or his evangelists, but oops, someone’s list of favorite authors changed after finishing the book.

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth and its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.

That is a sampling, obviously, of a Mitchell narrative, presented in the form of a diary entry. The message sounds bleak, yes, but the diarist decides on the next paragraph that his life would be worth living if he shapes a world where he would be happy to see his son inherit. An ambitious feat, yes, one that could not be single-handedly accomplished, maybe just as ambitious as the novel it belongs to.

It is composed of six interconnected novellas, or novelettes. Whatever. The first, the one where the quotation belongs, is a diary, probably written in the late 1800s. The second is a collection of letters in the 1930s. The third is a mystery-suspense novel, which could be in the 1980s. The fourth is a movie, most likely present day. The fifth is an interview, set in a future where cloning is a possibility. And the sixth is an oral folktale, post-apocalyptic, which somehow seems ancient. A full circle. Not really, but more like a parabola, because the first five are broken in half, some even in mid-sentence, only to resume their completion later on. 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1.

If I were to describe each of these six, it would take me longer than necessary. Each has its own distinct style, form, structure, and how could a writer create this novel if he does not have the genius to do it? True, there are already other novels with a similar approach, but this stands out because it is well-written. It’s very engaging, and the thrill that it brings can be likened to that gut feeling when a coaster charges through one of its loops.

It seems like six people pieced this panoramic novel together, people doing science fiction, historical fiction, modern fiction, and what else? It could be seen as a gimmick, this structuring of the novel. But if one can pull it off brilliantly, why not give him the credit for that? Besides, it still manages to be cohesive, not sloppy. Yes, it can get hard, just like any coaster ride, but it’s truly rewarding.

The dominant theme on each part is survival. Someone is always pursued by someone else. Someone else is trying to do wrong for various reasons. Yes, history tells us that we are a race of organisms that dwell on outliving one another, outsmarting one another. Survivor, anyone?

Yet in this dog-eat-dog world, there are souls who will do otherwise, holding on to that hope that this world will eat itself up and come up with a new order. Yes, these are only drops of water in the vast ocean of life, and the diarist responds, as the last line of the novel, in a question: Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

5 star - it was amazingCloud Atlas, by the way, is one of the character’s posthumous sextet for the piano, violin, cello, clarinet, flute, and oboe. If ever you are wondering why I chose B Major as the scale, this one has five sharps. More sharps in a scale make the melody fiercer and bolder. It’s only befitting for this sextet, this novel.

So after finishing this, I read Black Swan Green. And recently, I have finished number9dream. I am looking forward to reading Ghostwritten and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet with my bookish friends. One novel turned me into a completist. If that is not enough proof to make you consider, it’s either I did not do a good job with this or you are not willing to try reading one of the best books of the decade.

On that note, I don’t think I could ever fully justify the merits of this novel. It’s just that immense, but I am glad to have tried.