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Cloud Atlas: An excerpt and an interview


Cloud Atlas
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
by David Mitchell
 
 
 

Thursday, 7th November

Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoanuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a white man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shovelling & sifting the cindery sand with a tea-spoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, 'tis not down on any map I ever saw.

Had the doctor misplaced anything on that dismal shore? Could I render assistance? Dr Goose shook his head, knotted loose his 'kerchief & displayed its contents with clear pride. 'Teeth, sir, are the enamelled grails of the quest in hand. In days gone by this Arcadian strand was a cannibals' banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged themselves on the weak. The teeth, they spat out, as you or I would expel cherry stones. But these base molars, sir, shall be transmuted to gold & how? An artisan of Piccadilly who fashions denture-sets for the nobility pays handsomely for human gnashers. Do you know the price a quarter pound will earn, sir?'

I confessed I did not.

'Nor shall I enlighten you, sir, for 'tis a professional secret!'

He tapped his nose. 'Mr Ewing, are you acquainted with Marchioness Grace of Mayfair? No? The better for you, for she is a corpse in petticoats. Five years have passed since this harridan besmirched my name, yes, with imputations that resulted in my being blackballed from Society.' Dr Goose looked out to sea. 'My peregrinations began in that dark hour.'

I expressed sympathy with the doctor's plight.

'I thank you, sir, I thank you, but these ivories,' he shook his 'kerchief, 'are my angels of redemption. Permit me to elucidate. The Marchioness wears dental-fixtures fashioned by the aforementioned doctor. Next yuletide, just as that scented She-Donkey is addressing her Ambassadors' Ball, I, Henry Goose, yes, I shall arise & declare to one & all that our hostess masticates with cannibals' gnashers! Sir Hubert will challenge me, predictably, "Furnish your evidence," that boor shall roar, "or grant me satisfaction!" I shall declare, "Evidence, Sir Hubert? Why, I gathered your mother's teeth myself from the spittoon of the South Pacific! Here, sir, here are some of their fellows!" & fiing these very teeth into her tortoise-shell soup tureen & that, sir, that will grant me my satisfaction! The twittering wits will scald the icy Marchioness in their news-sheets & by next season she shall be fortunate to receive an invitation to a Poorhouse Ball!'

In haste, I bade Henry Goose a good day. I fancy he is a Bedlamite.

Friday, 8th November -

In the rude shipyard beneath my window, work progresses on the jibboom, under Mr Sykes's directorship. Mr Walker, Ocean Bay's sole taverner, is also its principal timber-merchant & he brags of his years as a master shipbuilder in Liverpool. (I am now versed enough in Antipodese etiquette to let such unlikely truths lie.) Mr Sykes told me an entire week is needed to render Prophetess 'Bristol fashion'. Seven days holed up in the Musket seems a grim sentence, yet I recall the fangs of the banshee tempest & the mariners lost o'erboard & my present misfortune feels less acute.

I met Dr Goose on the stairs this morning&we took breakfast together. He has lodged at the Musket since middle October after voyaging hither on a Brazilian merchantman, Namorados, from Feejee, where he practised his arts in a mission. Now the doctor awaits a long-overdue Australian sealer, the Nellie, to convey him to Sydney. From the colony he will seek a position aboard a passenger ship for his native London.

My judgement of Dr Goose was unjust & premature. One must be cynical as Diomedes to prosper in my profession, but cynicism can blind one to subtler virtues. The doctor has his eccentricities & recounts them gladly for a dram of Portuguese pisco (never to excess) but I vouchsafe he is the only other gentleman on this latitude east of Sydney & west of Valparaiso. I may even compose for him a letter of introduction for the Partridges in Sydney, for Dr Goose & dear Fred are of the same cloth.

Poor weather precluding my morning outing, we yarned by the peat fire & the hours sped by like minutes. I spoke at length of Tilda & Jackson & also my fears of 'gold-fever' in San Francisco. Our conversation then voyaged from my home-town to my recent notarial duties in New South Wales, thence to Gibbons, Malthus & Godwin via Leeches & Locomotives. Attentive conversation is an emollient I lack sorely aboard Prophetess & the doctor is a veritable polymath. Moreover, he possesses a handsome army of scrimshandered chessmen whom we shall keep busy until either the Prophetess's departure or the Nellie's arrival.

Saturday, 9th November -

Sunrise bright as a silver dollar. Our schooner still looks a woeful picture out in the bay. An Indian war-canoe is being careened on the shore. Henry & I struck out for 'Banqueter's Beach' in holy-day mood, blithely saluting the maid who labours for Mr Walker. The sullen miss was hanging laundry on a shrub & ignored us. She has a tinge of black blood & I fancy her mother is not far removed from the jungle breed.

Passing below the Indian hamlet, a 'humming' aroused our curiosity & we resolved to locate its source. The settlement is circumvallated by a stake-fence, so decayed that one may gain ingress at a dozen places. A hairless bitch raised her head, but she was toothless & dying & did not bark. An outer ring of ponga huts (fashioned from branches, earthen walls & matted ceilings) grovelled in the lees of 'grandee' dwellings, wooden structures with carved lintel-pieces & rudimentary porches. In the hub of this village, a public fiogging was under way. Henry & I were the only two Whites present, but three castes of spectating Indians were demarked. The chieftain occupied his throne, in a feathered cloak, while the tattooed gentry & their womenfolk & children stood in attendance, numbering some thirty in total. The slaves, duskier & sootier than their nut-brown masters & less than half their number, squatted in the mud. Such inbred, bovine torpor! Pockmarked & pustular with haki-haki, these wretches watched the punishment, making no response but that bizarre, bee-like 'hum'. Empathy or condemnation, we knew not what the noise signified. The whip-master was a Goliath whose physique would daunt any frontier prize-fighter. Lizards mighty & small were tattooed over every inch of the savage's musculature: - his pelt would fetch a fine price, though I should not be the man assigned to relieve him of it for all the pearls of O-hawaii! The piteous prisoner, hoarfrosted with many harsh years, was bound naked to an A-frame. His body shuddered with each excoriating lash, his back was a vellum of bloody runes but his insensible face bespoke the serenity of a martyr already in the care of the Lord.

I confess, I swooned under each fall of the lash. Then a peculiar thing occurred. The beaten savage raised his slumped head, found my eye&shone me a look of uncanny, amicable knowing! As if a theatrical performer saw a long-lost friend in the Royal Box and, undetected by the audience, communicated his recognition. A tattooed 'blackfella' approached us & fiicked his nephrite dagger to indicate that we were unwelcome. I enquired after the nature of the prisoner's crime. Henry put his arm around me. 'Come, Adam, a wise man does not step betwixt the beast & his meat.'


Copyright David Mitchell

 

An interview with Mitchell, from the Washington Post.

Q&A: Book World Talks With David Mitchell

Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page BW03

We found the author of "Cloud Atlas" in the Irish fishing village of Clonakilty, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Born in the English town of Seaport 34 years ago, he also has lived in Sicily and Hiroshima, Japan.

BW: What was the inspiration for "Cloud Atlas"?

DM: There wasn't really a single Eureka moment. For me, novels coalesce into being, rather than arrive fully formed. That said, three important sources spring to mind. First, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino -- an experimental novel in which a sequence of narratives is interrupted but never picked up again -- made a big impression on me when I was an undergraduate. I wondered what a novel might look like if a mirror were placed at the end of a book like Calvino's so that the stories would be resolved in reverse.

Second, a mention of the Moriori people in Jared Diamond's multidisciplinary Guns, Germs, and Steel led to a trip to the Chatham Islands and an encounter with New Zealand historian Michael King's A Land Apart. His idea that there is nothing inevitable about civilization caught my curiosity. Knowledge can be forgotten as easily as, perhaps more easily than, it can be accrued. As a people, the Moriori "forgot" the existence of any other land and people but their own. When I heard this, my novelistic Geiger counter crackled.

Third, a book by Frederick Delius's amanuensis, Eric Fenby, Delius: As I Knew Him, was worlds away from the Moriori but gave me the idea of Fenby's evil twin, and the struggle between the exploited and the exploiter.

Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting. (This needn't be as bleak as it sounds -- a consequence of getting can be giving, which presumably is what love is about.) Once I had these two ideas for novellas, I looked for other variations on the theme of predatory behavior -- in the political, economic and personal arenas. These novellas seemed to marry well with the structure I had in mind: Each block of narrative is subsumed by the next, like a row of ever-bigger fish eating the one in front.

BW: What did you learn in the process of writing it?

DM: I learned that art is about people: Ideas are well and good, but without characters to hang them on, fiction falls limp. I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so -- the stuff is near sacred. I learned that maybe I should have a go at a linear narrative next time! I learned that the farther back in time you go, the denser the research required, and the more necessary it is to hide it.

BW: Did you write it as six separate stories?

DM: I did, but put indications where I would later cut and paste the novel into its final shape. The day I decided to do it that way was one of the major finishing posts of the novel. (I went to feed the ducks.)

BW: What was your model (which is something quite different from inspiration)?

DM: Each of the six sections has a model. My character Ewing was (pretty obviously) Melville, but with shorter sentences. Frobisher is Christopher Isherwood, especially in Lions and Shadows. Luisa Rey is any generic airport thriller. Cavendish is Cavendish -- he has a short part in the "London" section of my first novel, Ghostwritten. The interview format for "Sonmi" I borrowed from gossip magazines in which a rather gushing hack interviews some celeb bigwig. Zachary owes (of course) a big debt to Riddley Walker, a novel by Russell Hoban, though some reviewers point to "Mad Max 3." (Thanks guys.) I can't claim that Don DeLillo's monumental Underworld is a model for Cloud Atlas, but reading him always encourages me (like drinking) to take literary risks. (Both books, I just noticed, have upbeat endings, against the odds.)

BW:What, in your mind, distinguishes this book from your others?

DM: It has more of a conscience. I think this is because I am now a dad. I need the world to last another century and a half, not just see me to happy old age.


 

 

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