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'Music is like a time machine.' David Mitchell on his swinging novel Utopia Avenue

 A story about the rise and fall of a fledgling rock band - it is not a revolutionary new idea. But although Utopia Avenue is a more 'ordinary' novel than, say, his bestseller Cloud Atlas (2004), in the hands of David Mitchell (51) even an ordinary story never becomes ordinary.

Those who have read anything by the Brit before, for instance, will recognise some characters or situations from his other novels. And Mitchell's swinging style, his infectious narrative pleasure and lively protagonists effortlessly transport you to the English music scene of 1967. Twenty-somethings Dean Moss, Elf Holloway, Griff Griffin and Dutchman Jasper de Zoet are not only storming life, but also the charts. Soon they meet musicians like David Bowie, Janis Joplin, the Stones and the men of Pink Floyd, and they perform in Rome, Amsterdam and New York. As the band members wrestle with who they are and what they want, they face scandals, and the loss of loved ones. Only just breaking through worldwide, the promising band is broken in knots by a fateful event.

For those wishing to escape corona for a while Utopia Avenue a trip down memory lane to the time of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the Beatles. Mitchell's love of music splashes off the paper. Yes, he nods, smiling from ear to ear. 'I just loooove music.'

Why does music have such an irresistible appeal?

'That is exactly what I wanted to explore with this book. Just by moving molecules in the air, music affects our endocrine system. Sound waves can trigger the production of dopamine or just adrenaline, or make the hairs on your arms stand up straight. I find it miraculous that mere vibrations can give you a transcendent experience, there is no other form of art that produces the same.'

'When you are young that sensation is often stronger, but even now I can be completely absorbed by a rhythm. My relationship with music actually gets richer the older I get. She is like a time machine. Like the cake, the madeleine, in Marcel Proust's work, a song or album can catapult you back to the first morning you heard that song. Then you are back there in that room for a moment, smelling the scents of that time, experiencing the feelings it he evoked in you. You don't have that when you're 22, but you do at 51e.'

For young people, music is often formative for their identity. Was it the same for you?

'When I was about 16, so in the mid-1980s, music was indeed like a menu to choose from: did you want a scooter boy be a punk, or a hard rocker or an indie? Music formed a guide to ask yourself: who am I?

 So, who were you?

'Ha ha, I think I belonged to what you geek rock could be called. I liked bands like Rush, Yes and The Smiths. Other influences were the newwave bands Joy Division and New Order.'

Yet you wrote not about the music of your youth, but about the two years before you were born. Why exactly that period?

'Back then, a lot of things were happening for the first time: a record like Sgt. Pepper's of the Beatles took numerous mediocre bands to greater heights for a year and a half. An album no longer became just a nice collection of singles, but grew into an art form in itself, a coherent whole that told a story, with a much higher level of lyrics.'

'Also, what we now call world music emerged as musicians heard instruments from other countries, such as India, for the first time. Music contributed to the revolution that was in the air in those years. People believed that it was possible to reform society. That we could shake off materialism and live a more spiritual life. That's why I found that time more interesting to write about than, say, 1987.'

Some people feel we now live in a dystopian time. So what could a story like this mean?

'The ideas of the 1960s may have been hopelessly idealistic, and the dream did not last long. But that glimpse of a better world did add a new destination to society's navigation system, making it possible to move towards feminism and greater diversity in gender and sexuality. That eruption of idealism has become part of the fabric of our society. I hope my novel shows that dreaming of a utopia, striving for a better world, is not a waste of time; it gives direction to our society. But I am not a teacher or a philosopher. I ask more questions than I give answers.'

David Mitchell: 'Striving for a better world is not a waste of time' ©Leo van der Noort

Is it harder to discover who you are today than it was then?

'The difference, I think, is that today we no longer see ourselves as a singular entity, but as an individual with many 'I's', and that image is reinforced by social media. Perhaps the value of literature, music and other forms of art is that it can help us build a functioning parliament out of all those voices that make up us as human beings. Our society has become so confrontational, so polarised. For many, listening to others' opinions equals surrendering, losing. But literature presses the pause button for a moment; you literally shut your mouth for a moment and listen to other voices and points of view, which might make you think just a little differently about a particular issue. And that is anything but loss.'

Your oeuvre also consists of many 'I's'; your novels are all connected through characters, situations or other parallels.

'That's right, I am building what I call an "überroman"; a web of books interconnected. For me as a writer, the familiarity of characters gives me great satisfaction; it's like seeing an old friend again. Building an über novel allows me to be a minimalist and a maximalist at the same time. I can write a novel about a particular milieu, a particular time and place, while at the same time being part of a bigger picture, which has much more depth.'

'Who Jacob de Zoet's unanswered prayers has read, has met Jasper's ancestor. Then you also know that Jasper's psychosis is not psychosis, but reality; through his bloodline flows an ancient curse. But for those who have not read that novel, both interpretations are equally plausible. A novel, like a cathedral, should be so big that multiple, paradoxical truths can coexist.'

'Perhaps that is why our current times feel dystopian: there is hardly any room left for paradoxical truths. Because of the power of algorithms, we still come into contact mostly with like-minded people, and very little with dissenters. Groups with a particular opinion form large, closed communities with only one truth.'

 Yet despite this 'überroman', you yourself value your translations of two books by a Japanese boy about his autism most highly.

'The world does not lack novels, even good novels. But it does lack knowledge and understanding of autism. I was very happy to be my Japanese wife's co-translator on this one. Two or three years ago, I was at a medical congress in England, and a doctor told me that she gives these books to parents of children with autism, so that they don't feel they have lost their daughter or son, but can learn to understand their child.'

'Even though I have a son with autism, I could never write about it as authentically as someone who has it himself. But I can write about it from multiple perspectives, in a cubist way. And I do plan to do that again in one of my future novels.'

 

 

A Quattro Mani

Photographer Marc Brester and journalist Vivian de Gier can read and write with each other - literally. As partners in crime, they travel the world for various media, for reviews of the finest literature and personal interviews with the writers who matter. Ahead of the troops and beyond the delusion of the day.View Author posts

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