Survival and Memory in “Sloosha’s Crossin’”
In the central story of Cloud Atlas, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” Zachry finds himself unable to explain why he alone of his family has managed to survive the Kona’s siege and enslavement of the Valleysmen. Like many survivors of traumatic episodes, Zachry feels guilty: “Guilt ‘cos I always s’vived an’ ‘scaped despite my dirtsome’n’stony soul” (299). Survival takes on many forms in this story. Certainly survival in the Darwinian sense plays a role: the plague that moves inexorably to the people of Prescient Isle, leaving only “one in two hundred,” amounts to one of the random events that allow natural selection to operate, replacing one population with another. Zachry faces an analogous threat from a rival sociopolitical group, as the Kona threaten both the lives and the cultural inheritance of the Valleysmen as a people (a reimagining, of course, of the Maori/Moriori story). We know, of course, from the storytelling situation, that Zachry will escape these attacks; and we learn at the end that he not only survives but also has a son. Reproduction acts as a point of intersection between evolutionary and cultural survival—procreation is a necessary component of evolutionary fitness, and so often in literature the birth of a child signals the possibility of a future, a continuation of the ancestral lineage not just in its genetic manifestation but also in its ways of life, its stories and beliefs and kinship networks.
Telling stories is, for Zachry, an act of cultural survival, as it is for so many characters in Cloud Atlas. But even though the reproduction of Zachry’s words and dialect gives the illusion of a transparent transcription through which stories can survive intact and faithful to the events they tell, we ought to know better than that. Sonmi~451’s orison, though as true a recording of her interview as one could get, is a cipher to Zachry; it is only her eeriness and sadness that he remembers. Cultural memory in this story means reconstructing meaning from the fragments of the past that have survived, investing them with new significance. Sonmi~451’s survival amongst the Valleysmen depends upon a radical re-imagining of her identity in which she is deified; similarly, the learning and knowledge that survived the Fall remain only in bits and pieces, and in many cases have been transformed (cars and planes, for instance, have become the stuff of dreams and legends). Meronym’s name means “a part of a whole,” and I think this is perhaps a useful way of looking at cultural memory—the fragments of knowledge and stories that survive from before the Fall cannot really be re-integrated into the whole that was, but they can become parts of a new whole, and take on a different role in a different epistemology. Survival requires not just the luck or strength to resist destruction, but also the flexibility to adapt to a changing whole. I think the liminal figures such as Zachary and Sonmi, who have a foot in both the old and new worlds, are the most representative of this kind of survival.