Most reviews of Cloud Atlas start by discussing David Mitchell’s dazzling narrative surprises, his “Russian-doll”-like use of nested or linked stories that form a larger, over-arching, meta-narrative blah blah…Sorry, I don’t mean to get snarky and I’m really making fun of myself, since I say things like that all the time in all sincerity. But I think that this line of reflection misses Mitchell’s essential greatness which, imho, greatly transcends, though is certainly served by, his technical brilliance, namely, his profound engagement with that oldest of human stories: the struggle to free ourselves from the cruel, oppressive – and usually literal – enslavement to which we subject our fellows and ourselves.
In Cloud Atlas, he plays variations on this theme, first, in its mercantile and violently racist forms in the nineteenth century colonial South Pacific, and then through the corporate greed of the recent past and present, a hellish future bio-tech-enabled slave society, an finally, and even further post-apocalyptic future where small communities try to protect the fragile remnants of human culture from stronger predatory tribes.
What amazes me is that I finished reading Cloud Atlas feeling stirred, hopeful and invigorated; not at all what the description of the content in the last paragraph might lead you to expect. But that’s Mitchell’s genius. His vision is so deep, so inclusive and his love of language and people so palpable that in his work, hope trumps despair, no matter how difficult the truth he tells may be.
His earlier novel, Ghostwritten, reads like an previous incarnation of Cloud Atlas. Even though I read it after reading the later work, I found it compelling in its own right as I did Mitchell’s recent, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which made its way onto the New York Times Bestseller List and a number of best of 2010 lists. It’s a more formally contained work that stays in a single time and place for the most part. Given that they happen to be the port of Nagasaki in the late eighteenth century and that the central characters are a repressed Dutch clerk working for one of the world’s first multinationals (the Dutch East India Company) and a beautiful and brilliant Japanese midwife disfigured from burn scars creates challenges of the kind that Mitchell seems to thrive on. The Dutch merchants were more or less quarantined by the xenophobic Japanese of that imperial era to a tiny, artificial island in the Bay of Nagasaki and only permitted to set foot on mainland Japan by special permission. The tension between two different peoples energizes Mitchell’s story of the consequences of encountering an “other” with love or with fear, with curiosity or with a need to subdue.
I don’t believe that his work is all that “difficult” or “not for everyone” any more or less than any other distinct piece of art, which is always subject to personal taste. But good storytelling is simply that. And if you hang in with Cloud Atlas. beyond the first two sections and begin to trust that Mitchell is not just messing with you (he isn’t!) the powerful current of his storytelling will carry you away