Borgia: The Election of Pope Alexander VI in 1492

Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)
Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)

A week or so later, a group of cardinals will enter a secret conclave to elect the next head of the Catholic church. TV cameras will be focused on a chimney in the Vatican and the world will be forced to watch the color of smoke that appears. This time, the election is interesting because of the way Pope Benedict departed from the office and also due to the controversies such as the child sex abuse, mismanagement at the Vatican bank, the leaking of secret church documents. As the cardinals are Googling each other and meeting in private apartments and restaurant backrooms,  while scandals and intrigue heat up, people are petitioning for the removal of certain cardinals from the conclave.
In 1492 CE, there was an interesting papal election; this was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the year in which Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to discover Asia and it was during this newly elected pope’s time that Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. The French-German TV series Borgia had two episodes devoted to what exactly happened inside the Sistine Chapel and the fictional depiction showed that the whole process had no sanctity and simply was a medieval version of The House of Cards played in the name of a religion. Deals were made, money was transferred, forged documents were presented and even army was summoned, all while the cardinals were holed up in a chapel after taking an oath not to communicate with the external world.
The person who desperately wanted to become the pope was Roberto Borgia (pronounced Borja), the same person who sent  Madonna Damiata to investigate a murder in The Malice of Fortune. Though he was not a favorite, he was sure with that the right amount of cunning he could pull it off. During this period, when the worst insult consisted of accusing one of being a Muslim or Jew, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies and the election of the pope consisted of finding the balance between those battles. Besides the local politics, the relation between Portugal, Spain and France added more spice in the election.
As Borgia enters the conclave, under an oath not to have any contact with the outside world, he he sure of six votes, but needs fourteen to win. But once the doors are closed, the cardinals start bickering over a new oath the pope elected should take. Since the church is rotten to the core  and members could buy positions in the Curia, they want to limit that practice. But some members oppose; they don’t want  the Vicar of Christ to take man made oaths, but instead want the oath to be non-binding. Once that is resolved, Borgia approaches the Portuguese cardinal and uses his Spanish origins to bargain. Since they both are the non-Italians in the group, he proposes that they unite.
After the first round of voting, Borgia receives just the six votes he expected. He tries to convince a cardinal who received one vote (his own) to support him, but he calls Borgia a whore. The next day, a letter in which Pope Pius rebuked Borgia for attending an orgy, surfaces. As all attention turns to him, Borgia turns the table on his accuser. The accuser had supported Borgia in his two previous attempts to become pope and on those two occasions, he did not bring up the letter. Hence this had to be a forgery. While it calms the proceedings, it reduces his supporters by one.
The next day another letter surfaces which alleges that the King of France had paid 200,000 ducats to one of the cardinals to buy off the election. It also accuses that the forged letter against Borgia was created using French money. Accusations go back with cries of “liar” and “hypocrite”. A young cardinal, who is on his first conclave, wonders why letters are being smuggled in against all rules. The vote count following all this reduces Borgia’s count to four and it looks as if he is on his way out.
Borgia starts negotiating directly with potential supporters. When he promises money, one of them retorts that his opponent as promised double the amount and if they go back and forth of money, all money in Rome would be insufficient for the counter offers. Then Borgia offers him the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position he currently holds in addition to the coins. By the third day, the cardinals are offered only one whole meal a day and all of them who are used to a lavish lifestyle cannot take it. Borgia uses this opportunity to smuggle in a great meal. He also promises an abbey for one cardinal, a church for another and a harbor for the third. He even promises to banish his nephews and niece (actually his children) so that they do not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medici and Borgia promises him that if he became pope he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increases to ten.
One of the losing cardinals sends a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that  force would help clear the indecision. As a battle gets underway outside the, the cardinals decide that they will not suspend the conclave till the pope is chosen. The cardinal who summoned the army apologizes for his mistake and asks his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent as he thinks Borgia is not a Catholic, but a Spanish Jew who converted. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally increases to 12 and his opponent to 13. The one who gets 14 wins and it becomes critical for Borgia to get there by any means for else he will have to flee to Spain.
In the final act, he negotiates directly with his competitor. He claims that he is a Roman and is concerned about reforming the church than about the politics between Milan, Naples and Florence. When that does not work, he offers the office of the Vice Chancellor. As bribery and flattery fails, Borgia takes the final weapon in his arsenal; he produces a document which alleges that the opponent’s family has Muslim blood in it. This accusation, Borgia threatens, is sufficient to put him out of business forever. The opponent succumbs and accepts the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal is closed. The next day when the votes are counted, Borgia gets 14 votes and he yells, “I am the Vicar of Christ!”
The politics of 2013 is definitely not going to involve calling armies or passing silver coins, but the Vatican thinks the leaks of certain reports have been done to influence the election of the pope. In 1492 election, theological views were never discussed, but for the coming election, it is expected that a conservative pope will be elected because Benedict has filled the positions with people who align with his conservatism. This means that the Church’s position on homosexuality and birth control will not change. What is same from 1492 is this:  even though the growth of the church has been outside Europe in the past century, the electoral college is Eurocentric. We will not know what exactly happens inside the conclave, but one can follow certain blogs and get a sense of the events.

Briefly Noted: The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Julia, a young art expert in Madrid, specializes in restoring paintings for auction. While restoring The Game of Chess by the 15th century Flemish painter Pieter Van Huys, she comes across a secret Latin inscription left by the painter which read, “Who killed the Knight?” The oil painting depicted two nobles involved in a game of chess and in the background, next to a window, lay a lady, dressed in black and reading a book that lay in her lap. One of the chess players was the Duke of Ostenburg and the other, a knight named Roger de Arras. The lady reading the book was Beatrice of Burgundy, the Duke’s consort.  According to history, by the time Van Huys painted the picture, Roger de Arras was dead and could not have posed for the picture. Thus the painter seems to have left a clue suggesting the identity of the killer.
With such a secret inscription revealing a Renaissance era murder, it was clear that the value of painting would go up and people involved in the deal start trying to backstab each other. As Julia tries to find out the identity of the 15th century murderer, a similar game starts in her life. Like chess pieces captured in the painting, people associated with her start getting killed. An invisible chess player starts leaving clues around and she has to figure out the identity of the modern killer.
After reading books like Steve Berry’s The Columbus Affair and Daniel Silva’s The Fallen Angel (which features an art restorer), it was quite refreshing to read this book.  Most of the historical thrillers I have read tend to be formulaic; this one was different and had multiple layers to it. It takes us to the world of art dealers, auctioneers and people who mint money in that world through nefarious schemes. The dialogue was not off a screenplay, but had depth; the people involved discussed mysteries involving chess, music, art, and fiction at both concrete and abstract levels. It was not an easy read compared to the books I mentioned, but it was worth it. Many thanks to my friend Fëanor for recommending it.

Writing Historical Fiction(9): David Gillham

David Gillham, the author of City of Women explains how he created the atmosphere of 1943 Berlin.

One way I tried to build the atmosphere of Sigrid’s Berlin was by introducing wartime movies, music, and food into the narrative. Of course, when Sigrid attends the cinema, it not really to watch a movie. She’s looking for a small space of privacy, which is why she favors war movies. These didn’t do very well at the box office in Berlin; the audiences for them were usually sparse. The average Berliner was less interested in seeing propaganda films such as Soldiers of Tomorrow than Heinz Rühmann in escapist fare such as The Gas Man, or Gustaf Gründgens in a lavish eighteenth-century costume drama. For more recent movies that capture either the essence of Berlin or the stunning contradictions of the war years, I’d recommend Cabaret and Europa, Europa.[Guest post by David Gillham: Watch, Listen, Eat]

History of Historians

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes has some interesting musings on history in the first part where Tony Webster and his trio of book-crazy friends analyze the meaning of everything, sometimes in subtle mockery or high seriousness. In one scene, the teacher asks one of them to offer his thoughts as the Serbian gunman who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in 1914.  The boy, Finn, explains one of the central problems of history in his answer, “The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

Later, there is a more detailed discussion of exactly what history is. “History is the lies of the victors,” one replies to which the teacher retorts, “It is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” Another one has a simpler explanation, ““History is a raw onion sandwich, sir” and he explains further, “It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.” Another one has a more precise definition, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Some of these observations come to reality in Benjamin Schwarz’s piece which is a review of Sheldon M. Stern’s The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory in The Atlantic. For years, through books and movies, we have been fed a story about the incident and how a tough Kennedy averted a global nuclear war and forced the Soviet Union to do a U-turn without offering anything in return. It turns out that this version of history was one scripted by the Kennedy administration. It was repeated by historians and has now been proved to be the lies of the victors. According to the book, the Kennedy administration was not innocent and  bore “substantial responsibility” for the crisis.

According to the new version Kennedy himself admitted that Soviet missiles in Cuba were the same as the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy. For him, it was not a military issue but a political one. Since he had made Cuba one of his campaign issues, he could not be seen acting soft on it. For this political reason, he had to create an image of toughness and show that he enforced a unilateral Soviet withdrawal.

Even though the crisis was averted by a mutual withdrawal of missiles, it was a different story that came out. The article explains how this story was minted

Only a handful of administration officials knew about the trade; most members of the ExComm, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, did not. And in their effort to maintain the cover-up, a number of those who did, including McNamara and Rusk, lied to Congress. JFK and others tacitly encouraged the character assassination of Stevenson, allowing him to be portrayed as an appeaser who “wanted a Munich” for suggesting the trade—a deal that they vociferously maintained the administration would never have permitted.

He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts—“profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive”—were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.[The Real Cuban Missile Crisis]

The truth finally came out because Kennedy had secret recordings of all the deliberations and thanks to that we now have the history of the historians.

Jan 2013: Reference Books on my Desk

These are some of the books that I referred a lot in the past year.

  1. Hiriyanna, M. Outlines of Indian Philosophy. Motilal Banarsidass Pub, 2009. Another excellent book is A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy  by Chandradhar Sharma
  2. Danino, Michel. Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati. 2010th ed. Penguin Books India, 2010. (my review)
  3. Tope,Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010. (my review)
  4. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004. If you want to understand all angles of the Indo-Aryan issue, this is an excellent introduction.
  5. Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. 1st ed. Pearson Education, 2009. This has become my standard reference for Indian history.
  6. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition) by  This was my textbook for a course I did at Princeton via Coursera and is my reference for Western History.

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

During the Renaissance period, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies (see above map). These places were ruled by powerful families like the Medici and Orsini who used both money and matrimonial alliances to their advantage. The Pope, during that time, was Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and one of his sons, Cesare Borgia, was governing the region of Romagna.  During that period, Leonardo da Vinci worked for Cesare Borgia as his military engineer. Also present in the same place was Niccolò Machiavelli, who was the Florentine secretary.
The Borgias were one of the most notorious families in European history and there is no shameful act that has not happened under their watch. When Rodrigo was around 25, his maternal uncle Pope Callixtus III, made him a bishop. The word nepotism (nepotis – Latin for  nephew) comes from this system which was common during that period. Rodrigo became Pope in the year Christopher Columbus set off to on his voyage to paradise.
During this period, alum, which was an important dye for the cloth industry, was discovered in the Roman hills. Previously it had to be imported from Turkey and following the fall of Constantinople in 1452, it was no longer an option. The revenue brought by the sale of alum was augmented by the sale of indulgences, a practice against which Martin Luther would revolt. This wealth was quite useful for Rodrigo to secure the future of his illegitimate children. He also ruled by terror; it was not considered a good idea to come in the path of the Borgias as murders and poisoning were common.
Among his illegitimate children, Rodrigo, who fathered when he was the Pope and also kept a mistress, had great ambitions for Cesare who was given command of the papal army. The novel is set in motion with the murder of his elder brother Juan and Cesare along with several Roman barons are suspect. This was followed by a series of grotesque murders of women who are considered as prostitutes and witches and their body parts are dispersed in carefully arranged patterns along the countryside.
To find the killer, the Pope sends Madonna Damiata, a courtesan who was the lover of the murdered Juan. At Imola, she meets Machiavelli and da Vinci, who work with her in solving the mystery. The first one-third of the book is written as a first person account by Damiata as she meets the various players in Cesare’s court and gets familiar with the vastly different techniques of the scientist and the man who studies people.
While The Secret Supper focused on Leonardo as an artist, this book is about the scientific methods he uses. In Imola, he is all about dissecting corpses, quantifying everything, creating maps and finding patterns based on that data and not guesswork. One of the fascinating parts of the book is when he disagrees with  Machiavelli on his techniques; his technique is based on analyzing historical events and the men who shaped them. Even though the times have changed, the nature of men remain the same, he argues and Leonardo cannot agree to that since it is of subjective nature.
During a ceremony at the place of a Romagnole witch, Damiata disappears and the remaining two-thirds of the book is a first person narrative by  Machiavelli. There is urgent need to find the killer because Cesare is about to make a pact with the Roman barons and it is possible that they might advance to  Machiavelli’s homeland of Florence.
All the characters in the book are real historical characters and all of them did what the historical record tells us. The missing part is why they did those things and Ennis fills those gaps. In an essay, Michael Ennis wrote

This evidence brought my sleuthing-geniuses premise squarely back into the domain of documented history: I had discovered a true crime story – involving, as it turns out, a brilliant serial killer–interlaced with one of history’s pivotal political events. Although this was a story Machiavelli, for very good reasons, decided to keep to himself, The Prince contains artifacts of it, once you know what you are looking for. As Machiavelli confesses to us at the beginning of his narrative, there is a “terrifying secret I deliberately buried between the lines of The Prince.” The words are my creation, but they are based on admissions that Machiavelli made later in his life. The truth that can be found between the lines of The Prince – a revelation of man’s capacity for evil far more ghastly than anything Machiavelli wrote explicitly in the text–is no mere fictional invention. With consequences that have resounded throughout the subsequent course of Western culture and history, the dreadful secret of The Prince is all too real.

It is also a great character study of Machiavelli  and shows how he came up with the concepts he later wrote in Prince. Even though the book looks a bit disconnected at some points, it is a great read and gives you a good account of the Borgias and politics of 16th century Italy. Also thanks to this book, I came across two television series (1, 2) based on this period.

  1. BBC. In Our Time. The Borgias

Briefly Noted: Solomon and Sheba (1959)

The Hebrew Bible does not have a lenient view on idolatry. The Genesis, besides talking about the origins of the world and the existence of evil, also wonders how could idolatry exist in a world created by a good god. The authors of the Bible lived in a region where the worship of little household idols and local fertility deities were common and it is believed that this rant against idolatry was an attempt at distinguishing themselves from the local customs and traditions. When God makes a covenant with Abraham and promises him the land, one of the justifications is that the current inhabitants were polluting it with idolatry. The primary book of the Priestly school talks about ritual purity and moral purity and the three heinous sins on the moral side were idolatry, homicide and sexual transgressions. Since idolatry defiles the land, the offenders are to be stoned. All this is put to test during the Queen of Sheba’s tempestuous visit to Jerusalem during Solomon’s reign.
According to myth, the Queen of Sheba, on hearing about the wisdom of Solomon, visits him. He too has heard about her and her cloven feet. Solomon talks to her about his God Yahweh and she converts. In the movie, the narrative is completely different. The Egyptian Pharaoh and the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) are allies who after failing in an effort to capture Israel come up with another plan. The Queen will travel to Jerusalem and influence Solomon (Yul Brynner). She will introduce pagan rituals which involve idols to Egypt and thus cause a rift between Solomon and his people. Once that is done it would be easy to conquer Israel.
It was a solid plan with one major loophole. The pagan fell in love with the monotheist. The monotheist too fell in love with the pagan and was willing to do anything to please her including giving permission for an an orgy festival. This, as expected, turns the clergy against Solomon. God too turns against Solomon and hits the temple and the Sheban idol with lightning.   Meanwhile the Egyptians, who were waiting for an opportune moment, attack and Solomon’s army has to retreat. Hearing the news, the Queen of Sheba goes to the temple and affirms the supremacy of the one and only God. Solomon too asks for forgiveness. Everything goes well as Solomon defeats Egypt and returns right in time to Jerusalem to save Queen of Sheba from death by stoning. God forgives the Queen, but mandates that she return back to her country. Sheba returns, carrying Solomon’s baby.
The movie ends at that point, but according to an Ethiopian legend, the son of Sheba and Solomon returns to Jerusalem to meet his father. But on his return, he takes the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark has stayed in Ethiopia ever since.

  1. Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) by Prof. Christine Hayes, at Yale

Writing Historical Fiction(8): Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall in 2009. She won the Man Booker once again in 2012 for the sequel Bring Up the Bodies. In a Fresh Air interview, she talks about her technique

I make up as little as possible. I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved there, and I try to run up all the accounts side by side to see where the contradictions are, and to look where things have gone missing. And it’s really in the gaps, the erasures, that I think the novelist can best go to work, because inevitably in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there’s always the question: Why did it happen the way it did? Where was the turning point? Every scene I go into, I’m looking for these contradictions, antagonisms, turning points, and I’m trying to find out the dramatic structure of history, if you like.[Mantel Takes Up Betrayal, Beheadings In ‘Bodies’]

You can listen to the entire interview on this page. In Guardian, she explains how she wrote Wolf Hall

After I had written the first page I was flooded by exhilaration. I am usually protective of my work, not showing it to anyone until it has been redrafted and polished. But I would have liked to walk around with an idiot grin, saying to the world: “Do you want to see my first page?” Soon the complexity of the material began to unfold. So many interpretations, so many choices, so much detail to be sifted, so much material: but then, suddenly, no material, only history’s silences, erasures. Until a late stage, what would become a trilogy was still one book. It was only when I began to explore the contest between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More that I realised I was writing the climax of a novel, not merely another chapter. The facts of history are plain enough, but the shape of the drama was late to emerge, and the triple structure later still. In my mind, the trilogy remains one long project, with its flickering patterns of light and dark, its mirrors and shadows. What I wanted to create is a story that reflects but never repeats, a sense of history listening and talking to itself.[Hilary Mantel: how I came to write Wolf Hall]

Briefly Noted: Lincoln (2012)

It could have been made as a war movie, but it was not. The movie is about the politics behind the passing of the 13th amendment and it shows Lincoln the visionary as well as Lincoln the ruthless politician. Even though the Emancipation proclamation was passed, Lincoln knew  it could be overturned after the war. He needed a law, but did not have enough votes in the House (The Senate had passed the bill). So he and his Secretary of State Seward employ the services of three lobbyists who manage to get the required votes through some unsavory means.
Even though the film is dialogue based and mostly shot indoors it makes for gripping viewing. Like the last over  in Lagaan, there is tension is in the air as the votes are counted on the fateful day.  Daniel Day-Lewis simply becomes Lincoln as if the photographs we had seen just came to life. His dialogue delivery is amazing, whether it is narrating a funny anecdote in the Cabinet meeting or explaining Euclid’s philosophy to telegraph operators at 4 am.  It is his movie and his performance just mesmerizes you. Apparently he first did not want to act in this movie and later he turned around. It would be hard to imagine anyone else in this role.
Another interesting aspect of the movie is the debate in the House over the bill. The Democrats wonder what will be next after the 13th Amendment. Will Lincoln or the abolitionist  Thaddeus Stevens consider Blacks equal to Whites? Or will they go so far as to give voting rights to colored people and women?
The amount of attention paid to details is also amazing. In an interview with NPR, Tony Kushner explained how he made sure that the words used in the movie were words used during that period by consulting the Oxford English dictionary.

“My main concern was to make it playable — that it had to be language that wouldn’t get in the way either of what the actors needed to do with it, or the audience hearing it. That it rang true. And for that, 19th-century novels were an enormous help — also newspaper accounts and even transcripts of some conversations that are available. And I used the Oxford dictionary, and I checked every single word through all 10 million pages that I wrote. If any word struck me as possibly post-1865, the OED is great, because it’s a word museum. And it will tell you when every word, as far as we know, first appeared in the English language.”[Kushner’s ‘Lincoln’ Is Strange, But Also Savvy]

The sound editing team made sure that the sounds were as accurate as possible.

Since sound recording was not widely available until Edison’s phonograph was invented in the 1870s, Lincoln’s sound team got creative. After a long period of negotiations, they were able to venture into the White House with handheld recorders to capture the noise of the opening and closing of period doors and the ticking of the clock that had been in Lincoln’s office during the Civil War. Indeed, the sounds of the various clocks around the White House feature prominently in the film, perhaps to emphasize that Lincoln’s effort to pass the 13th Amendment is, in its own way, a race against the clock.[How Lincoln Recorded the Sounds of History]

Visually rich and technically perfect, this movie was quite fascinating for me because it showed a human Lincoln and not the deified version.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that some human communities are meant to dominate others. David Hume in the 18th century carried the theory further by suggesting that Blacks are inferior to the Whites. There were others like the French naturalist Georges Cuvier and British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who produced variations of this racist theory. In Cloud Atlas the movie, Hugo Weaving’s various characters remind the tormented that there is a natural order for things and it cannot be upset and Tom Hanks who plays Henry Goose tells Adam Ewing that the strong always prey on the weak as he tries to kill him.
This exploitation of the weak by the strong runs as a thread across David Mitchell’s epic novel Cloud Atlas. Though the movie is out now, let’s start with the book. Unlike any other book I have read both due to the structure and the topics it handles, the book has six novellas set in different time periods. While The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is set in the 1850s on a ship sailing the pacific ocean towards San Francisco, Letters from Zedelghem is about Robert Frobisher, who becomes an apprentice to a great musician in Belgium. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is about an impending nuclear disaster and is set in the 70s in California and The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is set in the present in London. The futuristic pieces are An Orison of Sonmi~451 set in Seoul in the near future and Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After is set in the post-apocalypse period.
It is not six novellas one after the other, but more like one inside the other. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing ends abruptly and the second one starts. The second one is left incomplete and the third one starts. As the Russian dolls come out one after the other and it reaches Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,  the stories go backwards till they finish with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. Though they are set in different periods, they are not disconnected. Thus the journal of Adam Ewing is discovered by Robert Frobisher. Luisa Rey gets hold of Frobisher’s music piece and her own story lands as a novel on Cavendish’s desk. Sonmi~451, the heroine of the Neo Seoul piece watches a movie adaptation of Cavendish’s life and Sonmi~451 herself becomes a goddess for the folks who survive the Fall. But the connection among the characters is beyond this simple technique; the characters are the same people who are born across centuries and the connection is much deeper. Or as Mitchell said, “Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark.”
Now that’s not it. Each of the pieces is written in the literary style of that period among which the language spoken after the Fall is the most difficult to comprehend. Also, the amount of detail that has gone into each section immerses you into that period. As you get sucked into that story, it abruptly ends and you are transported to another period where you make all the connections with the characters in the previous story. Also the topic dealt with are vast: it goes all the way from slave trade to missionaries converting the natives to corporations feeding fabricants with fabricants to racial and economic issues. Reading the book was a mindblowing experience.

In the movie, the treatment is a bit different. While the book spends lot of time in one episode before moving to the next, the movie cuts from one to another abruptly. It goes back and forth in time connecting events logically and visually. But the most interesting decision the directors made is to cast the same set of people across the stories and thus we get to watch Tom Hanks as the villain in the Adam Ewing story and as a good hearted shepherd in the post-apocalypse world. Some portions of the movie differ from the book (There is no Eva for Frobisher to fall in love with; Sonmi~451 does not realize that her escape was choreographed by the totalitarian administration; the post-apocalypse characters do not leave earth), but the new versions do not irritate a bit.
Since I had read the book, the movie was easy to follow, but I am not sure if it was the same experience for folks who came without prior knowledge. While reading the book, the thought that comes to mind is that this book is not filmable, but they managed to make a good movie out of it.
See Also:  “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell: Adaptation is TranslationReview: ‘Cloud Atlas’ is the Most Daring & Satisfying Film of the Year, Movie Trailer