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A Terminal Illness Called Life

Vasundhara Sirnate

By David Mitchell
Hachette, India, 2014, pp. 595, Rs. 699.00


‘Life is a terminal illness’, says the character of Hugo Lamb in David Mitchell’s latest work The Bone Clocks that was also recently long listed for the Man Booker Prize. A few pages later,Lamb is drafted into a club of immortals with a stolen and perverse ability to drink the soul of another human being.  What is a soul and what is it used for in literary works? David Mitchell’s impressive literary works of fiction straddling non-fictional worlds are often elaborate commentaries on human evolution, human nature and the temporal worlds that bind souls. However, for Mitchell, souls are atemporal, morphable and easily transplanted across time and space, race and religion into different human beings.  In what is perhaps considered his most influential work, Cloud Atlas (2004), a soul discerned only by a distinctive tattoo of a comet and a few stars adorning the skin of the soul-bearer, evolves over a period of many centuries from a petty murderer on board a ship in the late 1700s, to a gallant semi-warrior trying to save what is left of the world after a nuclear holocaust. Cloud Atlas was the perfection of a theme that Mitchell had been working on for years. An earlier work Ghostwritten (1999) draws primarily from the time Mitchell spent teaching in Japan. In this book of interconnected stories, a noncorpum (a soul without a host) tries to discover why it exists, in the process inhabiting different people stuck in different times and caught up in historical incidents. Similarly in Number9dream (2001), a young 19-year-old, Eiji Miyake, searches for his father in Japan and the story follows his mind’s journey where several possible alternative ‘realities’ are almost indistinguishable from the actual reality of his situation and his search. The last chapter of the book is empty.  Perhaps the themes that make Mitchell’s work so distinctive are the focus on atemporality as a befitting answer to linear conceptions of time and how they tend to inhabit literary spaces, and a writer’s desire to capture the essence of a human character not by focusing on her emotions alone, but also by placing an individual human being in opposition to or in consonance with a broad immortal world where the significance of time is irrelevant. At this point, Mitchell can direct the existential confusion of a human to another level, where an individual may be able to ...

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