Review first published on my blog: http://memoriesfrombooks.blogspot.com/2013/10/cloud-atlas.html
I have to admit. I finished reading this book a while ago. I have taken this time to dwell on it, reread passages, think about it some more, and really consider how I describe it. Reading this book, I feel, will be an intensely personal experience. This book will not work for everyone. For me, it did.
From its description, the book is a set of six loosely related stories. Each is set in a different time and place. Each is written in an entirely different style. The first is the journal of a traveler. The second is letters from a young musician. The third is the story of a young reporter and big business. The fourth is the adventure of a publisher institutionalized because of illness. The fifth is the tale of a futuristic world of clones and slavery. The sixth comes full circle to life on a primitive post-apocalyptic island.
The stories are not told in their entirety, instead in halves. They build from the first to the sixth and then weave their way back. The first set of sections stop rather abruptly and at a climatic moment. Only the story of the post-apocalyptic world is told in one go. As such, it forms the crux of the novel.
Based on the description, I was not sure I was going to enjoy the book. As I read the first section, I wasn't sure I would like it. Yet, I kept reading. The writing styles of certain sections appealed to me more so than others. Slowly, though, themes start to emerge in the book - statements of ideology and philosophy - and it coalesces into a whole. The book is one about human nature, power, control, and the past being redefined to suit the needs of the future. These themes repeat throughout the book:
From the traveler's journal: "Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules, only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous act. What precipitates acts? Belief. Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world."
From the musician's letters: "Wars do not combust without warning. They begin as little fires over the horizon. Wars approach ... Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will ... The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence."
From the reporter's story: "Yet how is it some men attain mastery over others while the vast majority live and die as minions, as livestock? The answer is a holy trinity. First: God-given gifts of charisma. Second: the discipline to nurture these gifts to maturity, for though humanity's topsoil is fertile with talent, only one seed in ten thousand will every flower - for want of discipline ... Third: the will to power. This is the enigma at the core of the various destinies of men. What drives some to accrue power where the majority of the compatriots lose, mishandle, or eschew power? Is it addiction? Wealth? Survival? Natural selection? I propose these are all pretexts and results, not the root cause. The only answer can be 'There is no "Why." This is our nature.' 'Who' and 'What' run deeper than 'Why.'"
From the publisher's tale: "Mother used to say escape is never further than the nearest book. Well, Mumsy, no, not really .... Books don't offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw."
[Okay, I know this has nothing to do with the themes, but I love comments in books about books.]
From the future world: "In a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until only "rights," the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful."
From the post-apocalyptic world: "Human hunger birthed the Civ'lize, but human hunger killed it too."
What I found amazing was how completely David Mitchell is able to change his writing style from section to section. Each section is like reading a completely different book - the voice, the language, the writing style, the descriptions - pretty much everything about the story. I feel that David Mitchell describes his own work within the book. "Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a "sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second: each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's too late, and by then it'll be too late."
I vote revolutionary. I did not expect to like this book, but I did. I expected to toil through it, and through some sections, I did. The themes and the ideas of this book will stay with me for a long time, and I can see myself periodically rereading.