Books on Japan: Cloud Atlas
Joe Sinclair interviews David Mitchell about Japan and his new book, Cloud Atlas
Booker Prize-nominated author David Mitchell moved to Hiroshima in his mid-twenties, where he decided to get serious about his career as an author.
Not surprisingly, Japan has had a profound impact on his work, and his first two novels - Ghostwritten (1999) and Number 9 Dream (2001) - feature a deluded cult member hiding in Okinawa, a juvenile jazz-buff finding romance in Tokyo, and a mind-bending trip into the capital's seedy underbelly.
In his third book, Cloud Atlas (2004), six successive stories hop forward through time, emerging out of each other like Russian dolls. Having travelled from the Pacific Ocean in the late 19th century to a future of corporate cloning and the fall of civilisation, the novel rebounds back on itself, as each story is completed, leading us back to the beginning.
The disparate stories, narrated by a lawyer, composer, publisher and clone, echo with each other through time, bringing out themes of predation, exploitation and savagery.
Mitchell has moved back to the British Isles and now lives in Cork, Ireland, with his Japanese wife and baby daughter. Although Cloud Atlas is not set in Japan, the author's experiences of the East still influence his work. I talked to him about Japan and his new book.
What were you doing in Japan?
I was a bit of a long-termer. I was four years [teaching] in a small private language school in Hiroshima and then I escaped into university land, which is much nicer. You get lovely long summer holidays - it's one of the world's last great gravy trains.
How has Japan influenced your writing?
Inner monologues. I've only ever written once in the third person everything else is first person. I think one explanation for that is wandering around for all those years in Japan and not being able to communicate that fluently. It does turn you in on yourself a little bit. Your environment effects you wherever you are and I think a lot of the questions about how I write and why I write do come from there. Japanese art itself the simplicity and the clarity and the subtlety. I read a lot of Japanese writers in English but would like to hope at least that I've drawn in by osmosis a few of their good qualities.
In Cloud Atlas many of the main characters find themselves in alien environments. Is that a conscious result of your experience in Japan?
Probably not actually. But I have noticed the same thing about Cloud Atlas - people tend to be isolated and trapped, which might have been what it's like walking around Japan for the first couple of years. I think rather than me choosing consciously the predicaments of my characters it more just comes through on a fairly unconscious level. I think artists have a sort of inner architecture that is made manifest in the art work.
How good is your Japanese?
I can argue with my wife in Japanese, but I can't win the arguments.
Is that down to the language?
Good point. She's like most Japanese women. They're fairly softly spoken but that doesn't mean they don't have opinions.
You got a travel scholarship to research your book. Can you tell me more about that?
When I went to New Zealand I used part of the money to fly myself out to the remote Chatham Islands, which appear in the book, just to get a feel for the landscape, the weather and the mood of the place. The next year I used the second half of the money to do added extras around Hawaii. I went walking on lava fields.
Do you travel a lot?
When I lived in Japan I used to do an annual trip. Now I'm a father I've got some more immediate responsibilities at home and can't really swan off for quite so long. In a publicity year the trick is to combine wanderlust fulfilment with book business.
Why did you structure the novel like you have?
The idea of that structure has been knocking about in my head for years. It's to do with form, the idea of a Russian doll. I read about an Egyptian Goddess who gave birth to a pregnant daughter, whose embryo in turn was already pregnant and so on to infinity. That's just beautiful. It seems to be a beautiful model for time as well. Every possible moment is contained in this moment, regressing on to infinity.
This is the most political of your novels so far. It deals with sweat-shops, migrants, globalisation and so on. Are these issues which have struck you since you came back from Japan?
Yes, the excesses of neo-capitalism. But those are also fairly evident in Japan, even if you don't speak the language - just watching people's working patterns and how gruelling they are. As the clich goes, live to work rather than work to live. I think there's something in the air at the moment. As evidence I'd sight the success of Michael Moore's books. Around the time I was writing Somni 451 [the fifth story] I was reading Fast Food Nation, the expose of the fast food industry in the States. With feasible science fiction all you have to do is take what's here already, just take the present and exaggerate it slightly and you've got some sort of awful grotesque world.
The book warns that a "purely predatory world shall consume itself". Did you feel compelled to write this novel as a warning to people?
Compelled is probably too strong. It sounds arrogant if I say that I David Mitchell wanted to deliver this message to the unthinking ears of society. It's not really like that at all. It's simply something that I was attracted to writing so I wrote. I'm not a great deep political thinker. A novelist needs to know his own strong points and weak points. But I am a novelist with a political streak.
Can you recommend one Japanese novel to read?
The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. It's one of the best 20th century Japanese novels, I think.
With science-fiction, murder mystery and a historic voyage, Mitchell handles a remarkable range of styles, so it's a great achievement that each story could stand on its own.
There are traces of everything from Robinson Crusoe to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Star Wars, with allusions to Nietzsche and McDonald's, all expertly crafted into the original and intriguing super-structure of this entertaining and provocative read.
Books & Recommendations by David Mitchell
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Hitch-Hiking in Japan
Japan Travel Tips: Missing the last train in Tokyo
Hot Spring Bathing in Japan
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Memoirs of a Geisha - Movie Review
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Fear And Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements) - Movie Review
The Fog of War - Movie Review
Zatoichi - Movie Review