The year is 1849. Adam Ewing, a young attorney from San Fransisco finds himself stranded on a remote island in the South Pacific, waiting for his ship to be repaired. In his diary he explores the lives of the yet uncivilized citizens of this part of the world and the continuous efforts of the more developed countries to enslave them. Is there a superior race, destined to rule, or are we all equal and some were just born with more luck than others? What is the value of human life and can a Moriori slave be trusted? These question torment Adam’s soul, while a parasite is tormenting his body. And yet Adam is just about to witness the cruelty of human race.
The year is 1936. Robert Frobisher, a recently disowned and penniless British composer decides to abandon good old England and seek his luck in Bruges, Belgium. He becomes the assistant of the famous, yet arrogant and pretentious composer Vyvyan Ayrs. In his letters to Rufus Sixsmith (a scientist and possibly Frobisher’s biggest and only love) the young man shares his confrontation with Ayrs, his love affair with his wife, his dream to write the best sextet ever, Cloud Atlas. In Ayrs’ mansion Frobisher accidentally finds Adam Ewing’s diary and is enchanted by the travels of the young man. However, the future is not as bright and easy for this artist’s tormented soul and his passion for music and composing might lead him to tragic measures.
The year is 1973. The ambitious young journalist Luisa Ray becomes involved in a dangerous intrigue surrounding a new nuclear power plant being built near the fictional city of Buenas Yerbas. She meets now the much older and prominent scientist Rufus Sixsmith in an elevator, when he shares with her his suspicions that Seabord Hydra’s power plant might not be as safe as they claim it to be. Luisa suddenly finds herself in a corrupted corporate world, where human life is worthless when it comes to money and interests. As she investigates the story, Luisa finds Robert Frobisher’s letters and searches for the Cloud Atlas sextet, which seems oddly familiar.
The year is 2012. One of the most enjoyable and sarcastic stories features the unsuccessful British publisher Timothy Cavendish, whose big break in the industry comes after one of his authors kills a prominent critic at a big party. Believing his luck has finally come, Cavendish quickly finds himself on the run and ends up betrayed by his own brother and locked in a nursing house. Determined not to spend his remaining years being fed and taken care of, Timothy together with other over-the-hill patients plans a bold escape. He randomly finds a script of the Luisa Ray mystery, sent by an anonymous author.
The year is 2144. Set in a dystopian futuristic state, which used to be Korea, the story explores a totalitarian society, where people are divided into pureblood (born naturally) and fabricants (created artificially to perform a specific function in society). Sonmi 451 is one of those fabricants, a waitress at a big corporation, who is recruited by The Union, a revolutionary organization that seeks to abolish the slavery of the clones. In a Matrix-like world, Sonmi 451 joins one of the revolutionary activist in a mission set to failure (as showed by so many dystopian novels). Her version of the story is recorded for the future generations by an archivist, who at the end doesn’t seem entirely convinced in the world order that prevails. While familiarizing herself with this new reality, Sonmi-451 is deeply impressed with a movie about the life of Timothy Cavendish.
The year is 2321. Humanity’s greed and strive for power have managed to destroy civilization and bring the world back into a medieval stage. Zachry,a goatherder who lived in this post-apocalyptic state, tells the story to his grandchildren around a camp of fire. He used to live in a small village somewhere in the Pacific, where life was primitive, language was reduced to some hybrid and people worshipped Sonmi. Most of the villagers are farm people, who leave peacefully but are regularly invaded by a violent tribe called Kona. Everything is very middle-aged after the so-called “Fall” and it seems people have managed to lose everything. All changes when a woman from the Prescient, another form of civilization that trades with Zachry’s people, comes to live among them. Zachry and Meronim will have to face demons, both real and imaginary, in order to attempt to save whatever has left from our civilization.
Cloud Atlas seems incomprehensible and illogical to the point of anger at first. However, as you read, the puzzles start coming together in an incredible fashion. Structured as a pyramid, the novel begins with Adam Ewing’s sea diary and reaches its climax with Zachry’s story. Then it unravels again, Sonmi, Timothy, Luisa, Robert and back to Adam. Mitchel creates an interconnected world, where human lifes depend on each other; where the decision we make in this lifetime affect others long after we are gone. As the author himself explains:
Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context…
Six tormented souls share a common birthmark, shaped like a comet. And the six of them will be reborn again and again, fighting similar demons. Mitchell introduces the theme of reincarnation with skill and imagination. Nothing is presented neatly to the reader – he has to work to see the connections. But when they do emerge, oh, that is when you realize the beauty of Cloud Atlas. Can people become better as their soul reincarnates or are they doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Is this blog post I am writing today going to affect someone in 100 years, long after I am gone…or reborn in another body? Mitchell poses these questions and more and creates a matrix of events that couldn’t and wouldn’t have existed without each other.
Winner of numerous awards and nominated for quite a few more, Cloud Atlas is definitely a near-to-impossible book to film. And yet it was. For the complexity of the novel, I must say the movie was great. It managed to capture the different moods of the stories (being directed by several, not one, directors). It is a beautiful movie that manages to convey the author’s idea as closely as possible, and yet, without having read the book, one might find himself confused.
A great novel, a great movie, and a great experience. One of the best things that has happened to literature in a long, long time. It is a pity Hollywood had to step in for me to discover it.