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The book that didn't win

Cloud Atlas may have failed to win the Booker Prize list, but no recent novel matches it in terms of scale, ambition or architectural complexity, says MUKUND PADMANABHAN.

EVERYBODY who follows the Booker Prize has a list of novels that deserved to win but didn't. Mine includes D.M. Thomas' haunting psychological fantasy The White Hotel, which would have been a dead certainty if it hadn't surfaced on the shortlist in 1981, the same year as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Three years later, at a time when the world was still mesmerised by Rushdie's gift for verbal play and pyrotechnics, his tight and brilliant political satire, Shame, was surprisingly passed up in favour of J.M. Coetzee's The Life and Times of Michael K. (The story goes that the panel of judges was split two-two and the chairperson, Fay Weldon, who held the casting vote, initially opted for Rushdie and then suddenly changed her mind in favour of Coetzee.) The most recent Booker-wasn't-but-should-have-been was Mathew Kneale's English Passengers, an extraordinary novel that combines wit, warmth, adventure and historical detail in a narrative that is made up of a cheerful commotion of voices. Good though it is, the eventual winner, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, was a tame and uninspired choice.

A surprising failure

Possibly, the most surprising failure, if this is the correct expression for novels that make the shortlist but do not win, is easily David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. I can't think of another recent novel that matches this in terms of scale, ambition and architectural complexity — qualities that usually count a great deal with judges on literary panels. Moreover, the other contenders in the fray for Booker 2004 seemed tame in comparison. If the reviews were to be believed, the only somewhat serious challenger, and eventual winner — Alan Holinghurst's The Line of Beauty — travels down a well-worn road. Despite its radical underpinnings (gay, anti-Conservative, etc), the reviews portrayed it as a genial and humorous Kingsley Amis-like farce.

Cloud Atlas begins in the mid-19th Century on Chatham island near New Zealand where a peace-loving Moriori tribe faces extinction at the hands not only of exploitative colonials but also the rival Maori. Recorded through the journal of an American notary, Adam Ewing, who has an unusual spark of sympathy for the Moriori, the narrative lays the foundation for a theme that runs right through the novel — exploitation and slavery.

Six different narratives

This is the first of six different narratives, told in parts and then related in backward order. Interlocked loosely, almost whimsically in fact, Mitchell skilfully weaves the six novellas into an improbable but satisfying whole. The novel flashes across time, leaps effortlessly across continents and dazzles the reader with shifts in form and genre.

From Ewing's diaries, the second chapter or novella assumes an epistolary form, the letters written in the 1930s by a delightful rake who sponges off a famous Belgian music composer and ends up by falling in love with his daughter. Cut to chapter three and sunny California, where a ballsy reporter is bent on investigating a cover up in a nuclear reactor and where Mitchell's narrative style morphs into the stuff of pulp fiction. Later in the novel, the action is propelled to Korea, where a clone (Somni-451) in a futuristic fast food facility is debriefed for having inexplicably assumed human characteristics and where the entire section in rendered in the form of a Q and A. In the sixth and possibly most extraordinary of Mitchell's diverse stories, set in a post-apocalyptic world, Somni reappears as a goddess in the memory of a community in Hawaii, where memories of the past have all but faded and where tribal conflicts threaten life and dignity (not unlike Chatham in the opening chapter).

The part-told stories are then related in reverse order and we are back to Adam Ewing, who has returned from Chatham to San Francisco but has been unable to save the life of the slave who smuggled himself on board the ship. "One fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself," he records in his journal at the end of the book, which dwells on the unifying theme of Cloud Atlas. "In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction."

Mitchell's warning that the advances made over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president's pen on a vainglorious general's sword brings the novel to a didactical end. The directness of the message, which is somewhat bluntly conveyed, is a somewhat disappointing end to an extraordinary novel that is full of subtlety and cunning. Its failure to win the Booker has resulted in a different kind of disappointment, but the spontaneous howls of protest and frustration that accompanied this are measure of the mark it has made on those who have read it.

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