A bubble of respite
Author - Stephen Alter
Publisher - Puffin Books, Rs 199
The Cloudfarers is a whole balloon full of hope for the days you could use happy thoughts, writes ANUBHAV PRADHAN
Sometimes, we want to turn our back to the world, to life’s daily cares and thousand worries. We want to switch off, to take out time for just ourselves and not be fretted by the grimness of life’s many dark shadows. As scholars and practitioners, as teachers and reviewers, we are all perhaps too much with this, with trouble and anxiety distilled in words. Sometimes, it’s good to just escape from all of this into a bubble of simple joys and delights.
For precisely those times, then, is Stephen Alter’s The Cloudfarers: sunshine through and through. Set in what roughly appear to be the Himalayas, The Cloudfarers charts the escape of a bunch of young pupils from their oppressive boarding school to a land beyond ugliness and sorrow. The catch? Four of this motley group of five are not actually human. They are part of an ancient, alien race, the Cloudfarers.
There’s not much to go apart from this. Who the Cloudfarers are, which planet they came from and how long ago, none of this information is forthcoming. The Cloudfarers, simply, are: they exist amongst the human race, a more advanced and intelligent species, capable of greater agility and acumen-and, of course, of the ability to walk on clouds. They are spread all over, but their greatest concentration is in a valley across the snow-white mountains, far beyond the reach of man and beast. They live peacefully and amiably with each other, with no ambition for expansion or interaction: humans, ever afraid of what they do not understand, are not to be trusted. A reader looking to mine for details beyond these will be sorely disappointed.
Nor, curiously, is there much to go as far as the school, Paramount Academy, is concerned. It is easy to imagine Paramount as a spin-off of Alter’s own alma mater, Woodstock: set in heavily forested mountains, crags and spires all around, a musty old school with old traditions and customs. Corrupted now from its founding ideals, Paramount is a dangerous place: a violent, debasing place, a place for bullying and indoctrination of the worst kind. Its Principal, Captain Lovelock, embodies these fallen ideals, an aggressive, militaristic, opportunistic vision to life and to brotherhood. His leadership is responsible for the school’s transformation from being a citadel of truth, courage, and freedom of thought to a stifling prison of blind obedience, constant surveillance, and arcane learning.
It is from this situation that the four young Cloudfarers —Scruggs, Juniper, Meghna, and Ameel-escape, trusting and taking along a new pupil, Kip, to their secret homeland. Their flight is nearly ended twice by Lovelock, who almost manages to ambush them even as they travel across the mountains on clouds. Lovelock’s tenacity makes him a commendable villain, albeit a terribly flat character who seems nothing more than the sum of his naval uniform, boots and buttons, in the best traditions of Victorian allegory. Indeed, The Cloudfarers seems to suffer in terms of characterisation from this perspective: the characters are all types, all metonymic cut-outs who fail to materialise as flesh-and-bones sentient beings. Lovelock and Kip’s housemother Mrs Lobo are the bad guys in big, bold caps, while Kip and Co. are the good guys without the faintest shadow of doubt. Except for Brother Lazarus, there’s nothing much in between: and the world is a simple place.
Which is not bad at all. True, more details would have been nice: more details would have made The Cloudfarers a new epic, a bold new eruption on the South Asian literary scene. More details, more fleshing, could well have given cult status to the book, made it the stuff series emerge from: there is all the material here for it, the old public school gone bad, an incognito alien race shoring up against humanity for existence, an omniscient Oracle bending the borders of space and time, the fight between light and dark for the destiny of the world. The Cloudfarers could have become all this, and more, but it chooses to stay a simple book about the escape into an idyllic wilderness of a bunch of cloud-walking aliens and a troubled human boy.
And this is precisely what makes it endearing. It’s not big, it’s not the greater good, it’s not the world and its many woes: it’s a simple tale, circumscribed by its very specific contexts, with no pretensions to reforming or changing the world. The message, simple, is for the reader to glean from these very basic acts of quiet courage and conviction. In a world fraught with unending sorrow, The Cloudfarers is a very welcome bubble of respite.
The reviewer is a Doctoral candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed are his own
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