Thoughts on Cloud Atlas

The novel Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchel is at one level a collection of stories. This review is from the perspective of Hinduism, so I talk about the theme of reincarnation and spiritual advancement more  than conventional reviews; I also skip over the plot. If you want to read a more conventional review, then there are many on the web [1], [2].

The stories describe various characters, a naive 19th century traveler, a rather immoral composer, a female journalist in the 1970s, a present day publisher, a victimised clone in the future, and a member of a Hawaiian tribe in the distant future following the collapse of civilisation. These stories are written with such a diversity of styles that they could almost be from different authors.

At a deeper level, they are about civilisation and barnarism, the constant strugle to avoid the slip into chaos. At this level it may seem a rather depressing story, each time that civilisation seems to have a foot-hold, barbarism and destruction come to the fore again. Rich civilised people are pushed out by the merciless barbarian. Society exploits others for a quick profit, without a thought for the future, leading to decline.

Intertwined with these stories, however, is a deeper story. It is the story of a progression of a soul, from naive weakness, immorality, through eventually to wisdom to help others. What seem like lives that ended pointlessly seem to have a meaning when viewed from this further perspective. The story as a whole takes on new meaning.

There is some ambiguity as to whether David Mitchel is writing from a Buddhist or a Hindu perspective, at one point the “cloned” Somni451 hides in a community that lives in the remains of a Buddhist monastery, but they refer to the Buddha as “some sort of God”.

The pronouncements from the latest (furthest into the future) incarnation, Meronym seem to ooze with Vedic philosophy, a strong society needing spiritually advanced individuals, who control their desires:

[when discussing the differences between savages and civilised peoples] … Deeper’n that it’s this. The savage sat’fies his needs now. He’s hungry, he’ll eat. He’s angry he’ll knuckly. He’s swellin’, he’ll shoot up a woman. His master is his will an’ if his will say-soes ‘Kill’ he’ll kill. Like fangy animals.

… Now the Civ’lised got the same needs too, but he sees further. He’ll eat half his food now, yay, but plant half so he won’t go hungry ‘morrow. He’s angry, he’ll stop’n’think why so he won’t get angry next time. He’s swellin’, well, he’s got sisses an’ daughters what need respectin’ so he’ll respect his bro’s sisses an’ daughters. His will is his slave an’ if his will say-soes ‘Don’t’ he won’t, nay.

The savage is slave to his will, while the civilised person is master. This is one of many spiritual concepts that are neatly included in this volume.

Above all, what stayed with me from this book is the sense of needless, constant change, the world moving forward only to be slapped back. People striving for right, sometimes making small advances, often it coming to nothing. Then beyond this is the long view, of a soul caught in the changes but advancing, maybe glimpsing a little of the constant truth below the surface changes; the realisation that what appears to be a pointless waste is a necessary change.

I think that a Buddhist reading this book would find as much in it as a Hindu, in fact maybe more as David Mitchel has mentioned a respect for Buddhist traditions in interviews. Actually I would recommend it to anyone, because apart from the spiritual perspective there is something for everyone. Whether you like historic drama, detective stories, science fiction, or good literature you will find one of the stories comprising the book will fit the bill.

One response to “Thoughts on Cloud Atlas

  1. I loved this book! I read it many years ago, but I remember being pleasantly surprised by its unconventional story telling, moved by its creativity, and lost in the delicious writing. I admit, I was skeptical of your taste in books when you recommended Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. 😉 I tried reading another of her books and the writing was awful. Her plot ideas are right up my alley! Alas, her writing not so much.

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