Monday, 25 November 2013

Past Lives—What can you remember?

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

As a pre-schooler, I would tell my Irish Catholic mum that in my last life, I was a Jewish man who was killed in an accident where a balcony over a railway collapsed.  She nearly collapsed.  No, I was not and never had been Jewish, I was not a man and couldn’t have ever been one, and as a little Catholic girl, I was not to believe in reincarnation.  The whole thing was just wrong.

As I would insist, describing details of my winter overcoat, my baldness, the state of disrepair of the balcony, the relatives’ voices warning me off the balcony, my stubborn insistence on peering down at the railway tracks, my mother would grow truly harried.  Reincarnation did not and could not exist, and furthermore it was not allowed.  When I then went on to tell her of another death involving a Victorian hot air balloon she really popped.

Today I’m not totally convinced in the theory of reincarnation, but I do warm to the idea.  I’d rather live in a universe where we reincarnate, rather than one where we don’t.  So when the trailers came out for the movie, Cloud Atlas, I was intrigued.  It didn’t have a very long run in the theatres, so I tried to find it on pay per view, and couldn’t.  It finally appeared on our regular cable one night, so I PVR’d it.  Luckily I did, as I needed to rewind it umpteen times to understand the dialogue and quick time shifts.  Eventually I was onto my third go around with it, still stumped by certain passages.  Quickly I downloaded the book and fell into a deep and fascinating well.

These are six stories nested into one another, like Russian dolls.  They begin in the 1800s, move forward and backward among the 1930s, 1970s, 1980s, 2100s and perhaps the 3000s, although it’s hard to tell, since that narrator’s concept of numbers leaps from the hundreds suddenly to the millions.  By that time frame, civilization is mostly gone, aside from small tribal groups of nuclear survivors in Hawaii, and an even smaller group of travelling individuals who still possess technology, but their numbers have dwindled to a mere handful.  The individuals in these stories are the same throughout the time frames, although they aren’t necessarily reincarnated into the same bodies that the movie depicts.

Stylistically, the novel is challenging.  The sections from the 1800s use the vocabulary and speech patterns used then, so the language is much more elaborate and convoluted from how we speak.  But the sections from the future, especially the far future rely on very strange word changes and groupings.  Not only does the language shift over time, but the nuclear catastrophe that wipes out civilization has a huge impact on the language.  If you loved Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky”, and if you enjoyed figuring out what those slithy toves were doing gyring and gimbling in the wabe, then you’ll enjoy the linguistic puzzles in the furthest future story. 

As far as literature therapy goes, this novel does raise questions about reincarnation, but more importantly about the development of the human race.  We like to think that we’re improving with every generation and incarnation, but it will be up to you to see if the author sees improvement or decline. 

This novel also questions the concept of civilization.  Who is civilized?  What does it mean to be civilized?  Are we more or less civilized than our predecessors?  Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, whether you remember past lives or not, reflecting on your own degree of civilization will always do you good.  Read this book!  It will be good for you!

And if this book triggers any past life memories, please do drop me a line to share!

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