The Cloud Atlas

The Cloud Atlas

by Liam Callanan


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Set against the magnificent backdrop of Alaska in the waning days of World War II, The Cloud Atlas is an enthralling debut novel, a story of adventure and awakening—and of a young soldier who came to Alaska on an extraordinary, top-secret mission…and found a world that would haunt him forever.

Drifting through the night, whisper-quiet, they were the most sublime manifestations of a desperate enemy: Japanese balloon bombs. Made of rice paper, at once ingenious and deadly, they sailed thousands of miles across the Pacific...and once they started landing, the U.S. scrambled teams to find and defuse them, and then keep them secret from an already anxious public. Eighteen-year-old Louis Belk was one of those men. Dispatched to the Alaskan frontier, young Sergeant Belk was better trained in bomb disposal than in keeping secrets. And the mysteries surrounding his mission only increased when he met his superior officer—a brutal veteran OSS spy hunter who knew all too well what the balloons could do—and Lily, a Yup’ik Eskimo woman who claimed she could see the future.

Louis’s superior ushers him into a world of dark secrets; Lily introduces Louis to an equally disorienting world of spirits—and desire. But the world that finally tests them all is Alaska, whose vastness cloaks mysteries that only become more frightening as they unravel. Chasing after the ghostly floating weapons, Louis embarks upon an adventure that will lead him deep into the tundra. There, on the edge of the endless wilderness, he will make a discovery and a choice that will change the course of his life.

At once a heart-quickening mystery and a unique love story, The Cloud Atlas is also a haunting, lyrical rendering of a little-known chapter in history. Brilliantly imagined, beautifully told, this is storytelling at its very best.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385336956
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/26/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 510,426
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Liam Callanan teaches creative writing at Georgetown University and frequently appears on NPR’s Morning Edition and in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. This is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt


No morphine: no use, the doctor said.

The boy would die within the hour, and morphine was in short supply. He was saving it for the soldiers—for American soldiers, he added, checking the wall clock, then his watch, then me. It was four o'clock, 1600 hours Alaskan War Time, on July 6, 1945, a mere thirty-four days before fighting in Japan officially ended. The boy was Japanese.

When I was a boy, I was told a writer should date his age from the day he started writing. I can't remember why I was told this; I just remember that I liked it enough to repeat it over the years to those who might benefit from the wisdom. To anyone. To people like my drill sergeant.

He had a quick reply: a soldier should date his age from the day he started killing.

If that's so, I was even younger than the world took me for back then. An eighteen-year-old sergeant, I'd been in the army for ten months, waging a secret war, from Alaska, for six. I'd trained in bomb disposal. I'd learned to speak some Yup'ik, I'd fallen in love with a woman who talked with touch, I'd shot a bar glass out of my captain's hand.

And now, in that tiny room, in a mission infirmary just inland from the Bering Sea, the weather cool and wet, I was sitting at the side of a boy who was dying.

I was AWOL.

And for the first time since putting on a uniform, I was crying.

At eleven, the boy died. At midnight, I turned three days old.

Chapter 1


That's hardly enough to distinguish me around here, of course. I've heard it said that a percentage of Alaska's population is always fleeing something—the authorities, spouses, children, civilization. By comparison, I have it easy. It's just a couple of old priests hunting me, and I know them both. I could take them if it came to that, and it won't.

I'll be honest up front. They're coming after me for the most mundane of reasons. The only thing slightly extraordinary is that they're coming at all. For a while, I thought they would just forget about me, and that I'd be able to live out my days like most fugitives here: not entirely free from want, but free from those who want you. But no, first one sent a letter and then the other: these initial letters just suggestions, of course. Then a second round, with a request. And the third round, with an order. Come home.

Now, I served in the army. I know what it means to disobey an order, even a bishop's, and yet I did.

Let them come.

They say they will. This Friday, two days from today. My superiors (the bishop himself, they'd have me believe, and his right-hand man) are flying all the way out here to my lonely home in the bush to haul me in for the crime of—believe it or not—growing old. Apparently you can't be seventy-three and live in southwestern Alaska, though this fact seems lost on a good portion of the population here in Bethel. But no, it's been decided. It's time I came in, returned stateside, or, as those here say, Outside. When I've asked what I'm to do in retirement, they've said, Rest, write—almost sixty years in the bush, what stories you must have!

A younger man will replace me, I'm told, but who are they kidding? Silver-haired fiftysomethings count as young priests these days. And the fact is, fifty may be too old—if the silverhair being moved here is from, say, Phoenix. Me, I grew into this environment. I came during the war, left for seminary, and returned to stay. I've had fifty-six years to get acclimated, and the hardest part of that acclimation came when I was young and could take it. Show me the golf-tanned, fifty-year-old suburban priest who will survive transplantation here—I don't care how carefully he parcels out his multivitamins.

There is a bit of mystery to their pursuing me. There's another Catholic missionary I know who lives up north on the banks of the Yukon, in much rougher conditions than the relatively civilized frontier life here in Bethel (which includes electricity, a hospital, even alcohol—though only by mail). This Yukon priest, he's eighty. Maybe ninety. No one's coming for him. And his parishioners don't even like him, at least not as much as mine do me.

It's why I didn't answer any of the letters I received. One, I've aged into a fine contrarian, but more important, I wanted these men to come tell me face-to-face that I needed to retire. That way, when they said, It's because you're getting old, I could study their eyes and see what the other reason, the real reason, is.

I have an idea.

It's not about the man I killed, or the boy I didn't save. It's not even about the woman I loved.

But the shaman—

Well. Yes. This all might have something to do with him.

THE LOWER PART of Ronnie's leg was not torn off by wolves, though that's what he tells most people. And if someone got to see it, which almost no one ever does, that person might come away thinking he was telling the truth. His right leg ends just above the ankle in a tight red scar, the exact size, shape, and color of angrily pursed lips. The skin around it, smoother than silk from all the creams and ointments medical staff insist he use, colors with the weather and hosts storms of its own: clouds of bruises—red, blue, and purple—gather, encircling the stump, spreading, growing darker, and then fading. The amputation is relatively new, the prosthesis even newer, and learning to walk again has been a battle for him. After watching more than one afternoon's practicing devolve from laughs and jokes to curses and grunts and perspiration and Ronnie begging, Please, please take it off, let the swollen stump pulse and breathe as it wants to—well, a person wanted those wolves. He wanted them. I wanted them, pacing, their fiery eyes sizing him up, but at least looking him in the eye, not like the diabetes that was truly to blame.

By some accounts, I should be glad that Ronnie—just installed in his room, at the end of the ward, with windows looking west—is ill; for years, he had been trying to kill me. Nothing special, just a shaman trying to roust a priest. But shortly after arriving in the hospice, diabetes flaring and pneumonia threatening, he summoned me to his bedside. Plans had changed, he said. He was no longer seeking my death. And to prove his sincerity, he gave me the talisman that he'd planned to use to speed my demise.

It resembled a voodoo doll, and it resembled me, as much as such a thing could: short and starting to stoop, gray hair, something like glasses. He had dressed me in my blacks, although I rarely wore or wear clerical garb out here in the bush. Such clothes aren't warm enough for winter, too scratchy for summer. Besides, people knew well enough that I was the local Catholic priest. Ronnie knew; that's why he wanted to kill me: my God and I had driven his people and powers away. We had had this argument for decades, ever since I came to this part of Alaska to replace the previous priest, who had disappeared (some said literally, said they watched him fade away, limb by limb, until all that was left was a mouth in an O of horror, until there was nothing).

Ronnie liked to suggest that he had something to do with this disappearance. He was, then as now, the local shaman, a bit green for the role at the time, but few sought the job (Ronnie would claim the job sought the man). Ronnie himself wasn't a great advertisement. Whatever his success had been with my predecessor (whom my superiors suspected had simply fled, hysterical, out into the tundra one winter night—we'd lost more than one man that way), Ronnie's efforts with or against me went unrewarded. Charms were tacked to my door; various sacrifices filleted and placed about my corrugated tin chapel; and, of course, much scheming and chanting and brow furrowing was done out of sight. All to no avail.

And for an interloper, I was, and am, innocuous enough. Better yet: I have had a positive effect. We missionaries all tell ourselves that, but I have, I really have. With the help of modern medicine, I have healed the sick; with the help of the bishop, fed the hungry; with help of wealthy, faraway, misty-eyed parishes, clothed the poor. I have insisted on saying Mass, but I adjusted my schedule to meet theirs. What's more, I've eaten their food, I've tried to talk their language, I've played their games with their children. The previous man outlawed traditional dancing. I've encouraged it and attempted to learn.

And I've blessed things. Babies, houses, holes in the ice. Dogs, and later, snowmachines. Outboard motors and cases of Crisco. Nets, knives, and sewing needles, yes; but guns, never. And once, a dead woman's stuffed parakeet, although that was more exorcism than blessing. Her widower had remarried; the man's new wife said the parakeet helped friends cheat her at cards. Saint Francis, I prayed, it's not enough that this woman has to make a life in the subarctic tundra? With a husband who keeps his first wife's parakeet? Peace, Saint Francis. Go easy, O Lord.

And this hospice, Quyana House. It's a curious, mostly empty place, located well outside of town. It blossomed on the grounds of an abandoned radar installation, and is supported almost entirely by a Seattle family whose son drowned here one summer while serving as a missionary-in-training.

THE HOSPICE IS OFTEN empty because it's hard to get to, and people don't quite trust this Outside generosity. (Quyana means "thank you" in Yup'ik, which is all well and good, since this part of Alaska is Yup'ik Eskimo, but people find it a strange name nonetheless: just who is being thanked, and for what?) Plus, the old and terminally ill usually die at home—or at the hospital in town. The hospital is known as the Yellow Submarine, but the way it snakes along the tundra, long and flat, its every corner rounded, it looks more like bars of soap smushed together, or maybe some Outside architect's idea for a hospital on the moon. It stands on stilts; just about everything in town does. Otherwise, buildings would melt the permafrost and slowly sink into the tundra. But the hospital's awkward seventies Star Wars design makes its stilts look like landing gear; the entire building seems poised for takeoff, and there are those in town who sometimes wish it would.

The hospice, on the other hand, is a soaring structure, seemingly composed of equal parts glass and light. We all await the storm that will level it, but month after month it survives, and maybe I shouldn't be surprised: I've blessed the place half a dozen times. First, when they cleared the land for construction; second, when someone had fallen from some scaffolding and broken both legs; third and fourth came when a new wing went up and when it collapsed; fifth was the grand opening; and sixth was the dedication of the wing where Ronnie now lies, ready to discuss the terms of our truce.

I had put the doll replica of me in my breast pocket, taking care that the little arms and head were peeking out. At first, I did it as a joke, but then I had this sudden, inexplicable need to cough, and I thought: play it safe. I gave the little guy more room and Ronnie smiled. He knew I was thinking of the word, the word that's become a central tenet of my amalgamated Alaskan faith, a word that inevitably becomes part of any religion that spends too much time in the subzero subarctic dark: maybe. No one from Outside understands this law of the bush. No one understands how rock-solid principles can slide here; how black-and-white so inexorably mists to gray; how a priest, a true believer, a defender of the faith, a dealer in eternal truths, can find himself spooked by a makeshift voodoo doll. It can't happen. It's not possible. You repeat this like a mantra, and then you get back to the word.


Reading Group Guide

Published to critical acclaim, Liam Callanan’s debut novel combines a fascinating, little-known chapter of World War II with a unique tale of love and loyalty. The Cloud Atlas tells the story of Sergeant Louis Belk, who at eighteen is given the daunting task of defusing bombs throughout the haunting wilderness of Alaska. His mission is top secret: the explosives have been launched from Japan in whisper-quiet balloons, an ingenious campaign created by a desperate enemy. The mysteries of Belk’s mission intensify when his commanding officer proves to be both brutal and unpredictable–and in love with the same woman who has won Belk’s heart. She is Lily, a Yup’ik Eskimo who introduces both men to a world of spirits and visions that will change the course of their lives.

Framed around true historical events, with memorable characters and exquisite writing, The Cloud Atlas offers much to discuss. The questions, topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Liam Callanan’s The Cloud Atlas. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel.

The Cloud Atlas
A Novel
Liam Callanan
ISBN 0-385-33695-0
Also available as a Dell e-Book, ISBN 0-440-33485-3

1. Part One begins with a prologue depicting the Japanese boy’s final hours. How does this initial scene affect your reading of the novel? What conflicts does it establish regarding the narrator and his own road to adulthood?

2. Louis Belk’s first line in Chapter One is, “I’m a wanted man.” Discuss the irony in this choice of words. In what ways is he a fugitive? By whom is he “wanted?”

3. Louis chooses to stay with Ronnie through the night when he sees “no morphine” written on his chart, a reminder of the boy’s suffering as well. What are the politics of pain in The Cloud Atlas? How is Louis able to relieve his own pain?

4. The Alaskan landscape is in many ways a primary character. Do you see this landscape reflected in the emotional lives of its inhabitants?

5. How does Louis navigate sexuality? Do you view his celibacy as an indication of his strength or his fragility? What perpetuates the novel’s chain of unrequited love?

6. Discuss the narrative choices made by Liam Callanan in this novel. What is the effect of his use of the first person? How would you characterize Louis’ voice? In what way do the past and present mirror or enhance each other as The Cloud Atlas unfolds?

7. Do shaman and priest share much common ground in Louis’ world? Should they? Are the missionaries and military personnel in this corner of the globe for opposing reasons? Who are ultimately the novel’s most noble characters?

8. Various perspectives of an afterlife are offered through the characters in The Cloud Atlas. Which of these notions do you find to be the most plausible, and the most comforting?

9. Who were Louis’ surrogate parents after he left the orphanage? Do you count Gurley among them? In what way do ancestry, class, and education level determine the status of the characters in this community?

10. The author undertook extensive research in creating The Cloud Atlas. What historical or geographic aspects of the novel were most surprising to you?

11. Rice paper plays a key role in the balloon-bomb strategy, and Gurley’s discovery of its durability has nearly fatal results. How does this duality–paper as deadly yet delicate–reflect other aspects of the Japanese plot?

12. Does Ronnie’s life story reflect Louis’ at all? Does fate or circumstance perpetuate their friendship?

13. What ties Louis to this locale? What mysteries are finally resolved for him in those closing three days? Has his relationship to religion been transformed in any way?

14. What is the effect of Louis’ merging memories in the novel’s final pages? How are birth and death portrayed?

15. What contemporary comparisons can you make to this chapter in World War II history? Who are today’s Sergeant Belks?

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