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Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

What variety! What value! Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s third novel after Ghostwritten and the Booker-nominated number9dream, is really six books in one. It stretches through time and space, from the mid-nineteenth century to far into the future, and features six different narrators whose stories overlap and intersect, echoing and paralleling each other in subtly reflexive ways. The first five are interrupted in mid-flow, and then continued again in the second half of the book, in reverse order, making the whole converge on the middle section, which depicts a primitive, post-nuclear society, the most distant fast forward, but also the most savage and backward environment.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing has a naïve San Franciscan notary voyaging reluctantly home across the ocean from the South Sea islands in 1850, appalled by the casual cruelty of the captain and first mate of his ship, while being slowly poisoned by his quack doctor. He also learns much about the subjugation of the Moriori by the Maori on the way, and of colonists’ justification of ‘the ladder of civilisation’. In Letters from Zedelghem a disinherited young struggling composer is blagging a precarious livelihood in Belgium between the First and Second World Wars, as amanuensis to a more famous but now dried-up composer, while having an affair with his employer’s wife and falling in love with his daughter. Half-Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery is a hard-boiled Chandleresque detective thriller, in which the high-minded investigative journalist heroine risks her life exposing corporate duplicity in Governor Reagan’s California. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish has a loquacious vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors in a contemporary Britain where the privatised rail service is in a shambles, and inadvertently winding up imprisoned in an old peoples’ home. An Orison of Sonmi~451 is the testament of a genetically modified ‘dinery server’-cum-revolutionary on death row, in a future Korea where ‘if consumers are satisfied with their lives at any meaningful level…plutocracy is finished’, and language has devolved to the point where all shoes are ‘nikes’, all cars are ‘fords’, all petrol is ‘exxon’ and all citizens are ‘consumers’. Zachary, the semi-literate, oral narrator of Sloosha’s Crossing an’ Ev’rythin’ After is a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation and the return of tribal warfare, reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker in his disintegrated language, which mirrors his world.




As compendious and arcane as Pynchon, and with as large an appetite for pastiche as that great connoisseur of the conspiracy theory displayed in his historical novel Mason & Dixon, Mitchell deftly points up the equivalence between the blind rapacity of the nineteenth century European colonial project and contemporary globalisation, a critique which shows both enterprises as grossly exploitative exercises dressed-up as the onward march of progress.

David Mitchell may well be possessed of genius. Even if he isn’t, there is no doubting that he is talented in the extreme. As well-plotted, entertaining narrative, Cloud Atlas succeeds on many levels. As political and cultural fable, with an unerring humanist sense of the dangerous will to power that lies at the dark heart of man, it’s visionary. More than Amis – purveyor of class-ridden, public schoolboy fictions – or Self – the body-morphing of whose characters is becoming increasingly predictable –(and both of whom are far too worried about what the London publishing/media circus thinks about them), the internationalised Mitchell (formerly resident in Japan, now living in Ireland) is the Brit to watch.
He is in danger of once again giving the post-modern novel a good name.

First published in the Irish Independent













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