Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part I
By Kim Hollis
October 29, 2012
Additionally, Ewing’s writing rather famously cuts off right in mid-sentence to end the first novella. I remember my first time reading the book. I was utterly frustrated! Fortunately, Mitchell had a similar experience of feeling cheated while reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and was determined that the reader would ultimately come away satisfied. When asked whether the abrupt transition might be too startling, Mitchell answered, “Startling is OK – provided it’s not so startling that the reader dumps the book in the charity shop unfinished.” Fortunately, my initial dismay turned into intrigue.
The story itself feels pretty strongly like homage to Herman Melville, and indeed, when Frobisher is commenting on the journal later, he specifically mentions “Benito Cereno.” It also has shades of Moby Dick and Redburn, and Mitchell also credits Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series for inspiration as well. I was struck by how accurately Mitchell reflects the voice of that literary period – he even evokes the experience of the sublime, an important element of symbolism that runs through not only Melville’s work but also other novels and poetry of the 19th century.
“You can’t write about the 19th century and the sea without Melville’s long shadow falling across your laptop,” notes Mitchell. He would employ a similar style when he later crafted his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which, incidentally, briefly features a cameo from one of the characters of Adam Ewing’s story.
Adam Ewing is unimpeachable, which initially makes me suspicious of him (a misgiving later echoed somewhat by Frobisher). He is a godly man, devoted to his wife and family, bound to do his best for his employer. Even though he is fearful and uncomfortable about it (he’s a rule-follower, after all), he is the reason Autua finds salvation aboard The Prophetess.
Honestly, Ewing may actually be the least interesting character in the book, but his diary does an outstanding job of making all of the various people who surround him far more fascinating by comparison. Perhaps it’s because Ewing is so dedicated to doing right that he is dull. If he weren’t so dull, he also wouldn’t be so gullible.
It’s also possible that Ewing isn’t quite so virtuous as he claims he is. It seems like he protests too much. I do like the idea that this narrator is unreliable, because it sets the stage for future narrators to stretch the truth themselves, leaving the reader to puzzle out what is “genuine.”
The first part of this story is tricky, because indeed there is any number of villainous-seeming characters sprinkled through Ewing’s tale. First off, we have the overriding Maori, natives of the Chatham Islands who enslave the peace-loving Moriori (though truly, can they be villains if they are acting according to their societal mores?). Ewing also views the captain of The Prophetess in a less-than-flattering light; however, this viewpoint might be more a product of his fear of the man than any real character flaw. The first mate, Boerhaave, is a bad man. Corruption is his aim and the harm that he causes is of little concern to him. But all of these pale before the story’s true villain – Dr. Henry Goose, whose very name may portend quackery.