Akira Kumo, the Japanese founder of a great clothing design house in Paris, is one of the most feared and respected men in fashion, a genius renowned almost as much for his eccentricities as for his creations. Having reached the age of 50, it occurs to Akira to monitor his health, which he has taken for granted, so he might get the most out of the years remaining him.
To his shock and surprise, a routine medical examination reveals him to be as much as 20 years older than he thought — implying a childhood in wartime Japan of which he has no memory.
Such a striking development might well have served as the opening passage for The Theory of Clouds, the first novel by French film historian Stephane Audeguy, as, indeed, it provides impetus to the story’s key revelation. Instead it comes tucked somewhere in the middle, where an inattentive reader, beguiled by the savory mixture of science, history, literature, sex and dreamy beautiful prose, might easily miss it.
Indeed, the narrative of this novel is so lovely, in an unpretentious and readable way, it is tempting to wonder how much credit translator Timothy Bent might deserve. After all, it would not be the first time a novel or poem received aesthetic upgrade for having been translated. However, the novel received sufficient praise upon its French publication, with comparison to Jonathan Coe, Julian Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro, that such must not be the case.
“All children become sad in the late afternoon, for they begin to comprehend the passage of time. The light starts to change. Soon they will have to head home, and to behave, and to pretend.” That’s the way Audeguy chooses to begin his novel, and, in a daring performance, maintains this tone of innocence and resigned melancholy straight through to the end, even though many of the points upon which it eventually touches are very far from innocence and too terrible for mere melancholy.
After discovering his true age Akira hires a young librarian, Virginie Latour, to catalog his extensive private collection of papers and books, most of them having to do with his lifetime obsession with clouds. Before she can begin, he tells her the story of Luke Howard, the real-life Quaker apothecary and amateur scientist who devised the names we still use for clouds.
Thus Audeguy begins a lyrical seesaw that takes him repeatedly from the present day, where Virginie assists Akira in his library, to the stories of historical figures, most of them fictional, who were, like the Japanese designer, obsessed with atmospheric phenomena. There is, for example, the fictional artist Carmichael, whose desire to paint clouds perfectly drove him mad, and the figure who comes to dominate the book, Richard Abercrombie, a likewise fictional late-19th-century Scottish meteorologist who embarks on a world tour to photograph and identify all possible varieties of clouds.
In Borneo, however, Abercrombie undergoes an experience that alters him irrevocably — the gratuitous killing of an orangutan by a fellow Brit. He trades the project of photographing clouds for a similar one taking pictures of the private parts of prostitutes in ports all over Asia, amassing eventually a gigantic volume of images and notes he calls “The Abercrombie Protocols.”
It is this volume, lost to the world but assumed to be about clouds, that Akira most desires for his collection, and which he asks Virginie to find for him. In a narrative as disconnected from linear logic as “Slaughterhouse Five,” Audeguy gives us the story of the “Protocol” after its author’s death, as well as, eventually, in another scene of understated, almost poetic horror, the genesis of Akira’s cloud obsession in one of the most terrible events of the 20th century.
The Theory of Clouds, for all its stylistic delicacy, is a novel of great ambition. It may be read simply for the stories of its many characters and the most obvious and natural and pleasing of its symbols and parallels, as in the mirrored habit of both Abercrombie and Akira to seek intimacy solely with prostitutes.
But it is as intricately plotted as any thriller, with gems skillfully embedded throughout. Akira resides on Rue Lamarck in Paris, for example, a clever reference to the pioneering French scientist, Jean-Baptiste Lamark, who studied not only clouds but also — no coincidence — evolution. And while meteorology provides the obvious symbolic framework, fractal geometry and chaos theory, never mention ed, are equally significant to the effects Audeguy achieves.