David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was another travel find: the apartment building where we stayed in Berlin last June was located next to a cafe/bookstore. My daughters and I spent a couple of happy afternoons browsing the books then drinking tea at the tables outside. This place, called Buchkantine, had books in both German and English, and Cloud Atlas caught my eye because I've been a David Mitchell fan since reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet last December. It's really nice to pick up and read a book purchased while traveling--like extending the trip a little.
Cloud Atlas is a series of memoirs, told by various people, in various literary genres, from various time periods in the past, present, and future. Each tale is connected to the next in some coincidental way, and each is interrupted but picked up and finished later in the book. Big themes such as reincarnation, voracious consumerism, and humans' desire for power, are explored. The importance of choosing between good and evil, in large and small ways, comes up again and again.
Each is done in a different literary genre or style. These include a 19th-century ship passenger's diary, a series of letters from a young wastrel in 1930s Europe to his lover, a thriller set in 1970s California, a contemporary narration of a British publisher's misadventures in a nursing home, and a dystopian tale set in future Korea. The core story is set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, and seems to represent a possible outcome of humanity's eternal quest for power and domination; after this story, each of the others is picked up again in turn and finished.
I enjoyed this book tremendously, because of Mitchell's skill. Every
character's voice, and every memoir's literary style, is absolutely
unique and superbly executed. The two stories set in the future really need some knowledge of history to understand all the references (a Korean character in the future calls a piece of furniture "il-jongian" the way we would call a sofa "victorian"). I love that. Oh, and a Soul in the same tale is the term used, without irony, to refer to a credit card implanted in one's body. The British publisher's misadventures had me laughing out loud (he refers to his fellow nursing home patients as the Undead). The charming but selfish music student in 1931 Europe has a wonderfully waspish/vulnerable way of speaking which put me in mind of a lot of 1930s English fiction.
It's the kind of book you want to keep going back through to compare early passages with later ones, to catch nuances you missed the first time, to make connections that occur to you late in the book. So glad I picked this one up in Berlin.