viernes, 15 de enero de 2016

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

If Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell had been a piece of music, rather than a novel, it would probably have taken the form of a gigantic Bartok arch. Its apparently simple, but rather disconcertingly foreign-sounding start would develop into something that sounded quite new, but also strangely familiar. It would reach a central climax at its keystone, but a climax that would not satisfy in the conventional way that music often does, by achieving a stable tonic tutti in a home key, expressed via harmonies that reassure, confirm and reinforce. No, this climax would be violent, but also strange and disconcerting, offering as much question as confirmation. And then it would retrace its steps, but revealing them transformed by the very process of revisiting them. It would progress through its stages of development until it returned to its opening theme, mildly but intellectually transformed.

And it would be here that we would realise that all the material the piece had presented was in fact derived from the same basic idea, transformed via style, tempo and time to appear different, despite its progress through different episodes, which only now appear to be linked. At the end of the process, we are sure where we have been taken, but not at all sure where we have arrived. It might look and sound like the beginning, but we now see it anew, transformed, perhaps even distorted, even a little devalued, a reality newly interpreted.

But Cloud Atlas is a book, a literary, not a musical journey. The territory visited in the atlas, however, is like any inhabited by any artist, that of the human intellect and psyche. Like Julian Barnes’s A History Of The World in 10½ Chapters, it appears to meander from story to story, from setting to setting, with only barely random links. We begin on a nineteenth century Pacific voyage of assumed cultural superiority, graduate to a nineteen-thirties cooperation between a famous, syphilis-ridden composer and a young, naïve and bisexual amanuensis and then suffer a brush with corporate vengeance as a journalist seeks to expose safety risks with an atomic energy installation. A British vanity publisher, vainer than most of his clients, suffers success with a gangster memoir and walks straight into demands for a greater slice of what he assumes is his own action. Many decades later we encounter a dystopia, where a humanoid bred purely for service graduates threateningly to a more enlightened state. Into a further indeterminate future, we find a complete disjunction between rich and educated versus peasant and poor, groups who do not even share the same environment. And thus we reach the keystone in the arch, when the characters of a dystopic future cooperate to complete a mission that appears to be in both their interests. They share a design, a motivation, perhaps even values.

Then in turn we revisit each scenario we encountered on our way up. Each still occupies its own place in space, time and perception, a state in which they know their past but must speculate on their future. Even if we go backwards, time still progresses. By the time we have descended the other half of the arch, we are back where we began in the nineteenth century Pacific. But strangely, it seems that this earliest of the characters in time knows everything about all the others and can describe their lives.

But as we work through these apparently different stories, we begin to perceive a thread. There are obvious links. In some shape or form, each new scenario demonstrates an awareness of what preceded it. But these obvious links are not the real thematic threads. We are interested in each story because we meet characters pursuing both cooperation and competition. We find people driven by belief, internally driven by motives they themselves cannot control. But it is this drive that forces them to act, and it is their actions that provoke responses, cooperative or competitive, in others, differences usually driven by perceived interest.  And perhaps inevitably they all judge. They all seek personal advantage, but sometimes this is pursued via shared or group identity, alliances that both define and protect. We compete as individuals, but we also live by cooperation, applying judgment via assumption, presumption and prejudice, alongside what we excuse as intellect.

Thus Cloud Atlas examines the human condition. As an atlas it fixes certain aspects of humanity as constants, the ever-present belief, motivation and the need to act, to cooperate and compete. But the cloud is the nebulous form these constants may take in different time and place. We are driven by common traits towards unpredictable outcomes, the consequences of which our own future must accommodate and share. In Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell perhaps there is permanence along the way, but each scenario finds characters apparently forced by mere circumstance to act, to respond, to initiate, but only ever with partial sight of possible outcome. As the arch reveals its completion, we are back where we began, but we are richer for the experience, transformed by the journey. We might know where we are, but how do we respond? There, perhaps, is the permanent question.

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