The elderly Rufus Sixsmith, Frobisher’s confidant and sole

The outermost layer of the novel’s palimpsest is provided by ‘The
Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’, the mid-nineteenth-century diary of a
Californian notary on his way home from the Chatham Islands. Ewing’s diary is
found in ‘Letters from Zedelghem’, the novel’s next section set in Belgium in
the early 1930s, recorded by Robert Frobisher, musical enfant terrible and
amanuensis to the world-famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs. The third section of the
novel presents us with ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’, set in
California of 1975 and written in the style of Chandleresque detective fiction.
The section features the now elderly Rufus Sixsmith, Frobisher’s confidant and
sole addressee of all his letters, as a retired atomic engineer with Seaboard
Incorporated, a company whose criminal unscrupulousness is investigated by the
fledg- ling journalist Luisa Rey. Not only does Rey eventually come into the
possession of Frobisher’s letters, which Sixsmith appears to have carried with
him all his life, but her investigation also leads her to the Cape Yerbas Royale
Marina, the final mooring place of the Prophetess, the ship that carried
Ewing home. The Rey section is followed by ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy
Cavendish’, a light-hearted, if slightly sinis- ter comedic romp, connected to
the previous section by the fact that Cavendish is a publisher who is sent ‘The
Luisa Rey Mystery’ as an unsolicited manuscript for possible publication.
Notably both Rey and Cavendish already make brief appearances in Ghostwritten,
one as a caller on the Bat Segundo Show in ‘Night Train’ and the other
as Marco’s publisher in ‘London’ and Neal Brose’s employer’s younger brother in
‘Hong Kong’.

Sections 5 and 6 of the novel transport us far into the future. ‘An
Orison of Sonmi-451’, set in what used to be Korea, is centred on the life
story of a genomed servant clone rebelling against her stem-type programming
under the consumerist totalitarianism of Papa Song Corp. Her story is presented
to us in the form of an interview conducted on the eve of her trial for
treason. It survives into the novel’s final section as a holographic
audio-visual recording stored in a portable, egg-shaped electronic device. In
‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, set in the post-apocalyptic
archipelago of Ha-Why, we re- encounter Sonmi as a deity worshipped by the
local tribe of goatherds and fishermen, who, in Mitchell’s ingenious portrayal,
emerge at once as our ancestors and our descendants. Zachry, the central
character, is archetypal man; Adam is his long-lost brother’s name, but also of
course Ewing’s in the novel’s beginning. Torn by genocidal conflict between the
Windward and Leeward tribes, the story of Ha-Why con- cludes with the
enslavement of Zachry’s people by the Kona, repeating the Maoris’ subjugation
of the Moriori in the history of the Chatham Islands as recounted by Ewing in
his diary. As a result, any possible distinction between pre- and
post-lapsarian humanity, or the past and the future, as well as fact and
fiction, becomes virtually indecipherable. History is shown not so much to repeat
itself as to find itself in perma- nent oscillation between hope, joy and fear,
good and evil, certain demise and thereafter inevitable regeneration. In the
novel’s opening section Adam is saved from the deadly clutches of Dr Goose by
Autua, the last of the Moriori, reversing the roles of alleged savagery and
civi- lisation, Christianity and the pagan. Within the novel’s temporal scheme
it seems also as if Autua’s heroism in the past might somehow serve to repair,
or at least significantly counterbalance, Zachry’s future failure to save his
brother from enslavement. But then conventional concepts of time appear no
longer to apply, as what comes to prevail in Cloud Atlas manifests ever
more assertively as the global synchronicity of all human time exposed in a
narrative amalgamation of countless parallel worlds, which despite their
apparent multiplicity and chronological segregation signify in fact always one
and the same world. Emulating Cloud Atlas Sextet – Mitchell’s fiction of
Frobisher’s little-known, elusive musical masterpiece – the novel unfolds as
the orchestrated interplay of a range of intimately entwined tunes, played in
different modes on a variety of instruments, yet invariably chiming as one.