Eternal Snapshots of a Soulful Mind

A blue gondola cascades gently down a waterway in Venice. It crawls in languor, the afternoon sun immersing it in all its glory. As it rolls along under a stone bridge, Alan Lightman rests on his back, gazing at the blue sky, lost within his mind. He blinks. He finds himself in Bern, Switzerland, 1905, at the zenith of twilight. ‘It is a quiet time of day. Shopkeepers are dropping their awnings and getting out of their bicycles. From a second floor window, a mother calls to her daughter to come home and prepare dinner.’ Just as he sees the two colleagues who are coming home from the Patent Office, he blinks again. He is back at the gondola, but no time has passed. As Lightman imagines Einstein’s Dreams, so do I imagine Lightman’s own.

Such is the distinctive quality of Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams (1992). It does not concern itself with a specific plot; it instead depicts different conceptions of time that appear as dreams to Einstein, who appears at regular intervals with his working partner, Michele Besso. No variation of the different paths time can take is excluded, including such prominent examples as “sticky time”, “mechanical time” and “time in fits and starts”. Lightman eloquently paints each variation with an ethereal and surreal texture. He does not concern us with the scientific possibility and theoretical probability of these wondrous concepts. Instead, he explores the real world implications and human reactions to different timescapes.

In a world where the center of time exists:
‘And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let do. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil, will never tell her parents that she does not love them, will never leave her room with the view of the ocean, will never stop touching her parents as she does now.’

The writing is simple, the images are indelible. A tortured Einstein roams the streets of Bern, formulating his new theory of time, but Lightman pays little attention to his titular character. Instead, through Einstein, he depicts our interaction, infatuation, relationship and obsession with Time as well as our desires and the consequences that spring from it. Snapshots at faceless individuals gaze upon the fragility of human existence, a tale woven with the barest of threads, worn at the edges, glowing in fits and starts, overseen by the tick of the Grand Clock. A proto-Groundhog Day scenario takes place with each chapter, as the citizens of Bern are manipulated under the rules that govern each new concept of time, thus making the city a prominent figure in these vignettes.

As we struggle to control this ever elusive group of nightingales, Lightman forces us to consider the possibilities that emerge from twisting pretzels with the sand of the hourglass. But for Einstein, on an early morning in June 1905, history has not been made, and time moves on.

Einstein statue by maveric2003, CC-BY-2.0


My Brief Flirtation with ‘Cloud Atlas’

She’s that mysterious woman hidden by the shadows and neon light at the corner of a party, drink in hand, eyes looking at you disinterested. She’s clothed in pink silk and when she moves, it’s like her dress tells you the hint of a story. You’re surrounded on all sides by other people, but you’re not interested in any of them because at that moment, you want to know more about this woman. You want to spend the whole night on the balcony, glasses in hand, unearthing what makes her who she is, finding out why that initial glimpse provoked you into believing that she’s so alluring. That’s Cloud Atlas.

I first encountered Cloud Atlas while on holiday in Yercaud. I was there with my family for a couple of days, chilling out and relaxing. In my relaxed state of mind, I wandered over to the hotel library, which was pretty useless and obviously targeted at certain age groups when the glimpse of pink attracted my eyes to it. Intrigued, I picked it up and went through the process of checking the synopsis out and reading the praise it had received.

Something close to what I saw on the front

Something close to what I saw on the back

And so, I took it back to my room, determined to read it soon. When I logged on to my computer and googled it, I discovered that Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski Brothers (they made a little known trilogy with the title ‘Matrix’ in them) were adapting it into an epic movie. I thought to myself: this had to be FATE (because I’m a student of cinema and I found this book and they’re making….you get what I’m saying?)! It couldn’t be anything else, it meant I had to start reading it. And so I did, which resulted in the most enriching experience I have had with a book till date.

Cloud Atlas jumps across different stories in different timelines, but they’re all strangely connected (from what I remember, the pianist in Europe find Adam Ewing’s journal in the bookcase and Luisa Rey’s friend is connected to the pianist). The timelines are cut mid sentence and the layout of the book is like a Mobius strip ( a term I got from Doc Jensen ranting about LOST) that revisits the same story lines and presumably concludes them.

Mitchell populates his prose with wit, humor and a whole dollop of awesomeness as he weaves his intricate tale. I haven’t even got halfway through the book, because I had to leave the book behind at the hotel before we left. One of the worst decisions ever made. I should have just stolen it against my better judgement. It’s like biting into a strawberry for the first time. It’s all over the place in a mind blowing way.

And now the movie adaptation running at 160 minutes is making the rounds at festivals and people seem to be raving about it. I’ve purposely avoided any reviews or trailers, waiting to be able to finish talking to that woman. My dad saw one of these reviews from Toronto and asked me about it. I had tried persuading him to buy the digital Kindle version, but to no avail. I saw my chance and took it and downloaded the $4.32 kindle edition. 3 seconds later, the woman was back, staring me in the face. I didn’t start reading immediately obviously, because I wanted to get in that state of mind where you have to savor each word that your eyes see. Enjoy every moment, not like how I was with Harry Potter, whose prose had the flair of a pig scribbling the alphabet. I’m still waiting to get there, for when I do, nothing, not my job, not my online courses, not cinema, nothing will come in the way of me spending time with Cloud Atlas, for I truly believe it’s one of those books that has to be read before you die simply for its whimsical nature. Just look at the Amazon reviews if you don’t believe me, millions of people feel this way. And from what I’ve read so far, the stories aren’t UNIQUE. It’s the way he deals with them that is.

To Cloud Atlas, the woman who will steal your heart in a split-second. I’ll talk more about her as soon as my conversation is over, which I hope doesn’t happen quickly.