Study Guide

Cloud Atlas Memory and the Past

By David Mitchell

Memory and the Past

"I dreamt of a... nightmarish cafe, brilliantly lit, but underground, with no way out. I'd been dead a long, long time. The waitresses all had the same face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather." (2.7.15)

What about memories of the future? How do those work? Perhaps it's due to eternal recurrence, the trope Vyvyan Ayrs's last composition is named after. He's just remembering something from the last time the universe spun around, right? Or is it Groundhog Day? We're not sure.

[...] The dizzying vividness of the images of places and people that the letters have unlocked. Images so vivid [Luisa] can only call them memories. (3.23.2)

Luisa has a few memories from a possible past life. Is she actually remembering things Frobisher lived through, or do the letters just unlock familiar feelings? Can we "live" through the stories and writings of others?

A swarm of déjà vu haunts Luisa as she stuffs her belongings into her overnight bag. Robert Frobisher doing a dine and dash from another hotel. (3.38.1)

Here's another one of those past-lives moments. At this point, Luisa has read the letters. Are they just so vivid that she's thinking of them? Or did she really live as a bisexual male composer in another life?

Right there—right here. I could still taste it. I can still taste it as I write these words. (4.1.160)

Through writing his memoirs, Cavendish is exploring the true power of memory. A strong memory is almost like time travel. It's no different to Cavendish, who thinks he's actually gone back in time.

The word remember is outside servers' lexicons. (5.1.333)

Our memories greatly affect our actions and perceptions. But what if you don't have memories? The fabricant servers of Papa Song's get to live life as if every day were brand new. Sounds kind of nice—but totally scary at the same time.

But no matter how loud I shout, Boy Zachry, he don't hear me nor never will. (6.1.20)

When telling a story, there's a temptation to change the past. You can do it when you change the story, but does that change what really happened?

[...] an' years passin' an' ev'ry drumbeat one more life shedded off of me, yay, I glimpsed all the lifes my soul ever was till far-far-back b'fore the Fall [...] (6.1.251)

Zachry's having one of those "life flashing before your eyes" moments, but in his case, he's seeing lives flash before his eyes. His culture believes in reincarnation, so it makes sense that he would see a whole cycle of memories.

Memories refused to fit, or fitted but came unglued. Even months later, how would I know if some major tranche of myself remained lost? (8.1.12)

In case you're having memory problems like Cavendish, about four quotes ago we mentioned how he felt like a powerful memory had taken him back in time. What if that memory weren't exactly true? How would that affect his perception of the past, and his actions in the present?

The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent. (9.41.4)

Some people say that no memories are real: just like colors, noises, and sounds, they're all a series of electrical impulses in the brain. But they seem real. Because of this, it's possible to change someone's memory of the past—and control his or her perception of it.

Luisa is distracted by a strange gravity that makes her pause for a moment and look at [the Prophetess's] rigging, listen to its wooden bones creaking. (9.67.3)

Okay, this one is a little odd. Luisa is being drawn to the ship Adam Ewing was on. Is she a reincarnation of him, too? Or did she just remember Frobisher mentioning the journal in his letters? Ewing never mentioned a comet-shaped birthmark, but reincarnation probably isn't an exclusive club, right?