“I think of it in terms of when I walk into a cathedral I don’t really understand the mechanics of the force that is keeping tons and tons of stone up for hundreds of years above my head, but nonetheless the cathedral stays up.” —David Mitchell
With the cagey modesty typical of his public persona, David Mitchell does not say outright that his writing is cathedralesque, but the Gothic church really is the perfect analogy for his tour-de-force novel Cloud Atlas. The priest stands at the pulpit delivering his sermon; the choir performs a hymn; the lead-seamed stained glass windows admit and transmute light, casting projections and shadows upon the assembled; the multi-ethnic congregation mumble their prayers in unison; the frieze-panelled walls and ornamented nooks and corners, spandrels and corbels, all call out competing and complementary, refracting and interpenetrating myths. Meanwhile, immutable laws of physics and architectural ingenuity conspire to support the whole improbably elegant, awe-inspiring jumble.
Cloud Atlas is just such a luminescent, harmonious Babel of stories, a Borgesian bouillabaisse of clamoring narratives. Most obviously, there are the novel’s six principal tales, each belonging to a different genre—but Mitchell’s unabashedly intertextual technique also spins dozens of other yarns into each linked novella. Some pop up at intervals (appropriately, for a book so concerned with reincarnation and Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal recurrence), while others make but a brief cameo before disappearing into the “multitude of drops” that constitute Cloud Atlas‘s ever-shifting sea. Mitchell’s frame of reference is catholic (of course!): he is as apt to allude to a contemporary television show as he is to the myths of classical antiquity (again, appropriately so in a novel concerned with how stories are told and how they mutate with the passage of time). Even though many of the nods Mitchell makes towards texts outside his novel are explicit (with stories and authors named and acknowledged), it would take an army of forensic exegetes to collect and identify all of the literary DNA evidence in the book.
Unlike, say, Melville or Nietzsche, two key Cloud Atlas touchstones, the name of Joseph Conrad never appears in the text of Mitchell’s novel, nor do the titles of any Conrad books. This, in spite of the fact that Cloud Atlas is not only shot through with allusions to Conrad, but, I would argue, is in constant dialogue with Heart of Darkness. Mitchell, in the acknowledgements to Cloud Atlas, says—again, cagily—that “[t]he character Vyvyan Ayrs quotes Nietzsche more freely than he admits.” The same could be said of Mitchell and Conrad. Both structurally and thematically, Mitchell adopts and adapts Conrad’s techniques and ideas, borrowings which are evident on both the macro (narrative structure, theme) and micro levels (dropped hints and allusions) and culminate to suggest powerfully that Cloud Atlas has a secret heart of darkness.
At first glance, one is hard-pressed to imagine two novels more structurally disparate than Heart of Darkness and Cloud Atlas. The former is so brief that it is often classified as a novella; the latter sprawls to over 500 pages. The former follows a single plot line, narrated by a first-person protagonist in three sections in an unflaggingly straight line from beginning to middle to end; the latter consists of six discrete but intercalated and interpenetrating novella-length narratives, each written in a distinct genre (travel journal, epistolary, thriller, memoir/picaresque, dystopian/sci-fi/interview and oral epic, respectively) and style, each set in a different time and place.
There is, however, one crucial common denominator: the frame narrative. The principal action of Heart of Darkness is narrated by Charlie Marlow, but Marlow’s tale is introduced, and occasionally interrupted, by an unidentified narrator who, along with “The Director of Companies,” “The Lawyer,” and “The Accountant,” comprise the immediate audience for Marlow’s yarn, as the five men, aboard the “cruising yawl” Nellie, wait for the tide to turn on the Thames at Gravesend. Mitchell, essentially, employs the same framing technique as Conrad but multiplies it. Not only is each main story embedded in its successor, which it interrupts, but each also frames within it one or more small stories. Some are framed in virtually the same manner as Heart of Darkness, such as Adam Ewing’s journal. In the “Sloosha’s Crossin’” sections, Zachry’s narrative incorporates, among others, stories told by Truman the Third and Meronym.
For both authors, framing devices are not whims or matters of convenience, but complements to the respective novels’ thematic concerns and reflections of the authors’ preoccupations with how stories can and should be told. Heart of Darkness is generically related to the sailor’s yarn, but Conrad takes pains to distinguish his protagonist—and his modus operandi—as a more thoughtful specimen than his fellows, as the framing narrator explains:
[Marlow] did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
Mitchell is similarly invested in the reinvention and transcendence of genre clichés and limitations, and we find Conrad’s metaphor of nut and shell nestled within the framed text of Isaac Sachs’ notebook, as Sachs attempts to work out certain temporal conundrums reflected by the structure of Cloud Atlas:
One model of time: an infinite matrioshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.
It is more than a little tempting to speculate that Mitchell puts inverted commas around “shell” not merely because Sachs is using the word figuratively, but because he is quoting Conrad. Such speculations might seem tenuous, were it not for certain deliberate signposts, which all seem to point the reader down Conrad’s Congo. One of the first, and most substantial, framed narratives in Cloud Atlas is the story of the subjugation of the willfully peaceful Moriori people by the warlike Maori. The story is narrated by the preacher D’Arnoq and recorded by Adam Ewing in his journal. Spelled backwards, the name D’Arnoq, which does not seem to exist outside the pages of Cloud Atlas, is a very slight mutation of Conrad. Mitchell promptly quashes any doubts about the intentionality of this coincidence:
The name of Mr D’Arnoq is not well-loved in the Musket. “A White Black, a mixed-blood mongrel of a man,” Walker told me. “Nobody knows what he is.” Suggs, a one-armed shepherd who lives under the bar, swore our acquaintance is a Bonapartist general hiding here under assumed colours. Another swore he was a Polack.
Cagey as always, Mitchell is obliquely telling the reader that he has imported a disguised Conrad into his novel to conduct a covert campaign. Broadly, that campaign consists of the introduction of a complex discussion of human nature and the false dichotomy of “savage” and “civilized” humanity. By making D’Arnoq a “White Black,” Mitchell also appears to be exonerating Conrad, who has been much maligned in post-colonial critques (most notably by Nobel Laureate Chinua Achebe) as a racist. The reversal of Conrad’s name may simply be a strategy on Mitchell’s to use Conrad while avoiding blatant asynchrony (the action of Heart of Darkness post-dating by several decades Adam Ewing’s adventures), but one suspects that Mitchell might have wanted to disguise Conrad in order to bring his ideas into Cloud Atlas without subjecting them to the knee-jerk reactions that Conrad seems to inspire in many contemporary readers and critics.
After D’Arnoq “unlock[s] a Pandora’s Box of history” by relating the plight of the Moriori, his next sortie involves introducing a live specimen of the doomed tribe to Ewing. Some time after setting sail from the Chatham Islands aboard the Prophetess, Ewing learns that he has an uninvited cabin-mate: Autua, a fugitive Moriori slave, hidden away behind coils of rope by D’Arnoq. Ewing, who wants no part of D’Arnoq’s “good causes,” is resentful of this imposition and casts about for ways to “convince Cpt. Molyneux of my innocence in Mr D’Arnoq’s plot.” Mitchell’s choice of the word “plot” is crucial here, as it is a plot of Conrad’s, from “The Secret Sharer,” into which he has dropped poor Adam Ewing. It is through his exposure to Autua—unlike Legatt, an improbable double, who eventually saves Ewing from the predatory Europeans Goose and Boerhaave, causing Ewing to recognize him as a peer—that Ewing gains enlightenment and decides, at the end of his narrative, to become an Abolitionist.
The secret sharing relationship, in which one party more or less involuntarily plays host or companion to another, recurs throughout Cloud Atlas: Frobisher and Jocasta; Luisa and Javier; Luisa and Sixsmith; Sonmi and Yoona~939; Zachry and Meronym and, parodically, Aurora House’s escapees and Mr. Meeks, who, with his speech faculties damaged by a stroke or dementia, is the ideal secret sharer. The only thing he is supposed to be able to say, appropriately, is “I know! I know!” but he will never tell what it is he knows. In both Heart of Darkness (and by extension “The Secret Sharer”) and Cloud Atlas, secrets (and the correlated themes of truths and lies) are viewed with considerable ambivalence. For Marlow, the secret of Kurtz’s descent into savagery is an enormous burden, a “duty” he carries with him back to Europe and which forces him into “a choice of nightmares”: he must either tell Kurtz’s Intended the horrible truth, or lie to preserve her illusion of Kurtz as a beacon of humanity. The latter, a sort of moral suicide, is no easy option for Marlow, who “hate[s], detest[s], and can’t bear a lie . . . There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies.” Secrets are similarly shrouded in ambivalence in Mitchell’s novel. The sharing of a secret brings two or more characters into an intimate relationship and forges solidarity, but secrets are also fraught with danger. Yoona~939’s secret leads to her death and would likely have also killed Sonmi had she been less successful in keeping it. The secret shared by Frobisher and Jocasta—their Oedipal affair—turns out not to be a secret at all, but a means for Ayrs to manipulate his amanuensis. Luisa’s secret relationship with Javier puts the boy in jeopardy when Fay Li threatens to harm him in order to control Luisa, whose life is threatened precisely because of the secret shared with her by Sixsmith. And Zachry’s secret, which is also a lie, has about it a Marlovian stink of corruption: “secrets jus’ rot you like teeth if you don’t yank ’em out.”
Once inserted into Adam Ewing’s life and journal, the dialectical analysis continues, in one form or another, in each subsequent chapter of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell takes pains to remind the attentive reader that, even though D’Arnoq disappears from the novel, Conrad is never far below the surface. Like Conrad, Mitchell peppers his book with leitmotifs, many of which are either consonant with key devices in Heart of Darkness (among them, tropes of light or flame; maps; rivers; blindness and sight) or are clear allusions to Conrad’s novel. An exhaustive inventory of these tropes is beyond the scope of the present discussion, but only a few key examples are needed to demonstrate how pervasive Conrad’s influence on Mitchell’s novel is.
First, there are references to the Congo, both overt and slightly submerged, which serve as signposts, or hyperlinks, to Heart of Darkness. In “Letters from Zedelghem,” we learn that “the Crommelyncks did well from Congo investments,” while in “Half-Lives” one of Javier’s stamps features “a paddle-wheeler churn[ing] up an inky Congo,” and Joe Napier’s crisis of conscience occurs at his cabin, next to a “lost river” lined by “ancient oaks,” a covert allusion to the “primeval forest” on the banks of the Congo. Second, and even more persuasively, there are phrases lifted straight from the text of Conrad’s novel. Adam Ewing writes of a hog-farmer who “said the Maori had performed the White Man a service by exterminating another race of brutes,” echoing almost verbatim the infamous post-scriptum to Kurtz’s pamphlet for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Kurtz’s other famous utterance—“The horror! The horror!”—reverberates throughout Cloud Atlas, is very nearly inscribed in the name of the racist missionary Giles Horrox, and is, somewhat ironically, mouthed verbatim by Timothy Cavendish, in reference to his incarceration in Aurora House. The most chilling hyperlinks between the two books are the two severed heads mounted on poles found by Zachry and Meronym at Cluny’s Dwellin’ and Saint-Sonmi’s Dwellin’ in the wake of the Kona’s pillage, corresponding to the stake-mounted skulls Marlow spies outside Kurtz’s compound.
Why does Mitchell go to such lengths to weave Conrad’s text into his own? In short, it is to show that, however literary and societal fashions may change, the human realities unearthed and exposed by Conrad via Marlow are fundamental and cross-culturally universal. As Sonmi says when the archivist protests that he does not “see how . . . such evil could take root in our civilized state,”
It is a cycle as old as tribalism. In the beginning there is ignorance. Ignorance engenders fear. Fear engenders hatred, and hatred engenders violence. Violence breeds further violence until the only law is whatever is willed by the most powerful.
The same thought is taken up in Morty Dhondt’s view that “[t]he nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence.” These philosophical musings are recapitulated aphoristically in Henry Goose’s First Law of Survival: “The Weak are Meat the Strong do Eat.” Mitchell takes this dictum to its ineluctably logical conclusion in the “Sloosha’s Crossin’” section, which is fitting, since this dystopian future world is, structurally, the dark heart of Cloud Atlas. Here human hunger—the same voraciousness that Marlowe sees in Kurtz, “as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him”—has led to a denuded, toxic planet, with humanity on the brink of extinction: “’human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too.” Meronym’s discourse on the both/and nature of civilization and savagery could well be a paraphrase of Heart of Darkness:
List’n, savages an’ Civilizeds ain’t divvied by tribes or b’liefs or mountain ranges nay, ev’ry human is both, yay. Old’uns’d got the Smart o’ gods but the savagery o’ jackals an’ that’s what tripped the Fall. Some savages what I knowed got a beautsome Civ’lized heart beatin’ in their ribs.
In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz, the acme and incarnation of Western culture—“[a]ll Europe contributed to [his] making”—commits horrific atrocities and “preside[s] at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which . . . were offered up to him.” By contrast, Marlow is struck forcefully by the “restraint” shown by the putatively savage African cannibals crewing his boat, who do not turn on, and eat, the whites, despite outnumbering them and despite being very hungry. (The motif of the hungry, but “inexplicably” restrained savage is picked up by Mitchell, when Adam Ewing worries: “what bestial depravity might a savage not be driven to by an empty stomach?”) To Marlow, this is “one of those human secrets that baffle probability” ,” which he contrasts explicitly with Kurtz, who “lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.” This reprises Marlow’s opening rhetorical gambit, in which he asserts that England “also . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth,” when its natives were the barbaric savages and Rome’s soldiers the civilizing invaders. By describing modern Brussels as a “whited sepulchre” —clean on the outside, but dark and death-filled at its core—Marlow makes it plain that the darkness of European society is no figment of the past. Mitchell must have had this trope in mind when he had David Frobisher describe another Belgian city, Ostend, as having “coffinesque streets.” It is worth noting, also, that Frobisher (the namesake of a famous English explorer, Martin Frobisher, who sailed to Baffin Island and brought back a load of fool’s gold), like Marlow, goes to Belgium in a speculative quest for a job that has not been advertised. And like the unnamed “Company” that hires Marlow, Frobisher’s employer also believes that he is engaged in a civilizing activity.
Physical strength, Marlow asserts, has far more to do with determinations of who is civilized and who is savage, than any innate racial qualities:
They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
The immutability of these individual and social realities is the grim message conveyed by both Conrad and Mitchell. For Marlow, there is no such thing as “Progress,” as he sees “nineteen hundred years ago” as “the other day.”
“The mind of man,” he says, “is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.” Kurtz’s death is an event of no special significance for the world, because he will, as he insists, return. The synchronicity of past, present and future—recall Sachs’s notebook entry, quoted above—the fallacy of progress (whose most passionate advocate in Cloud Atlas is the plainly delusional Giles Horrox) and the “eternal recurrence” of events are, if anything, even more central for Mitchell. It is significant that the name of Adam, the Judaeo-Christian first man, is the name not only of the protagonist of Cloud Atlas’s oldest story, but also the name of Zachry’s abducted brother in the most futuristic tale. It should also be noted that Mitchell’s pairing of Adam (an “A” name) with Zachry (a “Z” name) matches up not only two significant Biblical figures, but actually encodes God’s dictum “Ego sum Alpha et Omega.” The beginning and the ending are one. Furthermore, Zachry’s name, in Hebrew, signifies “What Jehovah hath remembered.” His story, at the furthest fringe of human time, is both memory and prophecy. None of these details is accidental and, in concert with a dizzying array of other references and allusions, they are textual reifications of Mitchell’s thinking about time and eternity—thinking for which he owes much to Conrad. The idea that the “oldest” and most optimistic story (Adam Ewing’s) and the furthest in the future and darkest (“Sloosha’s Crossin’”) are both happening at the same time is the only thing that saves Cloud Atlas from being an utterly desperate book. Had the “terrorsome cold” truth of the Prescients in “Sloosha’s Crossin’” been placed at the end instead of the middle, the change to the overall tone of Mitchell’s book would have been seismic.
While there are no happy endings promised by either the notoriously pessimistic Conrad or by Mitchell—for whom chronological “endings,” as such, are necessarily beside the point—they both present uncannily similar possibilities for holding darkness at bay. When confronted by the brutal, ugly truth of human nature stripped of its illusory “cloak of time,” Marlow says it is a “deliberate belief” that is required to stay civilized. This is something picked up and elaborated upon by Adam Ewing in Cloud Atlas‘s closing pages, as Ewing recovers from his poisoning and reflects upon his “recent adventures” which have made him “quite the philosopher”:
Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes.
What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.
What precipitates acts? Belief.
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history’s Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. . . . Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?
Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. . . . In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
Ewing has gone from being a sea-going diarist simply relating the incidents of his travel to a storyteller more like the Marlow presented by the framing narrator of Heart of Darkness. Ewing’s philosophical ponderings take place while he “hear[s] naught but the stream grinding boulders into pebbles through an unhurried eternity.” The invocation of the river as metaphor for time brings us back into contact with Conrad’s Congo—just as Ewing prepares to ventriloquise ideas articulated by another fictional character who post-dates him. Ewing’s clear-eyed hope for a better future, in spite of the dark heart of human nature’s “many-headed hydra,” and in defiance of Wagstaff’s exhaustedly cynical assertion that all beliefs turn to “rats’ nests and rubble,” is a striking departure from the tragic pessimism of Conrad: Heart of Darkness ends not with a “deliberate belief” but in a deliberate lie. That Mitchell positions Ewing’s last entry at the very end of Cloud Atlas is his way of answering Marlow’s beginning: this also, Mitchell says through Ewing, can be one of the bright places on earth.