Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Salon: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

While I was in China I could only take a couple of books besides the guides: these were China A-Z (which I've talked about before) and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I read David Mitchell's Ghostwritten several years ago, and was so impressed I immediately bought Cloud Atlas and Number 9 Dream to go alongside it (I also bought Black Swan Green when that came out in paperback too). I've been longing to read them, but in the haphazard way I tend to select the books I want to read next its moment had never come.

But when I was searching for a novel to take with me to China I came across it on my shelf and thought it would be a very good bet. It also turned out to be a very apt one: parts of Cloud Atlas have an eastern feel, and I realised toward the end of the book that one segment is based on the life of a waitress in a futuristic Korean restaurant. It happened to chime with one of my experiences in China.

In Chongqing I arrived at a restaurant early, before they had officially opened, but they kindly let me eat there anyway. I'm glad they did because while I was eating I saw something that I don't think many people see: the way a Chinese restaurant prepares itself for its customers. The many young waitresses stood together in row in front of the head waitress, who was a slightly older woman. She then asked them a question and they replied enthusiastically in unison, some of them glancing at me with delighted faces, but all of them smiling. After several exchanges, which were clearly rote-learnt, they clapped and dispersed. When I asked what they were saying I was told it was something about how they did their job. I guess it was something like the company edicts I saw on the wall - the things I sometimes see on company websites and can be summarised as: 'We aim to please.'

A couple of hours later I settled myself down on one of China's older trains, a 'soft sleeper' for a small place called Yizhou, and eased out Cloud Atlas from the top of my case. I was on the chapter called 'An Orison of Somni' and it seemed like I was reading about what I'd just seen - but some time in the future.

Here the waitresses were all clones, bred to serve for about 12 years until they gained enlightenment, thereby earning their passage to a paradise named Hawaii. I loved the way this story unfolded, and it reminded me strongly of Margaret Atwood's writing in the Handmaid's Tale. Words were slightly corrupted and I liked the way some of the commercial elements of our modern world had persisted, for example 'Starbucks' and 'Sony'; it made the society seem shallow and materialistic.

The Somni chapter was followed by an even more futuristic segment called 'Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After'. This account was written in an even more corrupted English, set in a post-cataclysmic world. It reminded me a little of the amazing 'Riddley Walker' by Russell Hoban, but the words in Sloosha's Crossin' were easier to understand and not such hard work.

The earlier stories in Cloud Atlas were set in the past: a nineteenth century voyager, then an early twentieth century wangler, a small-time publisher and, finally, a reporter on the trail of an exposé. David Mitchell is an expert in the art of literary ventriloquism, each segment is written in a different style evoking a certain era and is appropriately exciting, funny or interesting and always convincing.

Reading Cloud Atlas was rather like examining the section of a tree under a microscope. At either end the rings are old but the become younger until, at the middle there is the newest growth before passing back to old growth again. Each ring was excellent, but I preferred the new growth, particularly the section set in Korea.

In Ghostwritten the theme seemed to be chance - a small event in one place and time nudged what happened in another place and time - a concept that reminded me of the time-travelling game hunter treading on the butterfly in Ray Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder'. I took a creative writing class once and I chose Ghostwritten as the set text. We noted what affected what - and developed a beautifully complicated spider diagram. In Cloud Atlas the same idea applied but this time the transmission of effects was vertical rather than horizontal - how the life of one person affects the ones that follow.

Anyway, it turned out that Cloud Atlas was an excellent choice for my trip in several ways and I'm looking forward to reading my other Mitchells now, especially Number 9 Dream, because I've heard he has another book coming out like this next year so I think I need to get myself ready.

In the meantime my bookpile has increased by two others I'm dying to read: Vladimir Nabakov's Pale Fire - highly recommended to me by several people - and The Passport by Herta Muller, kindly sent to me by Serpent's Tail, following the author's winning of the Nobel Prize. But today, for my research, I am reading A Brief History of the Dynasties of China by Bamber Gascoigne - which contains some fascinating information and I am learning a lot about how the lives and civilisation of the early Chinese.