How many molecules of Julius Caesar’s dying breath do we inhale each time we breathe? From the first-year physics subjects I studied 40 years ago at the start of my medical degree, that’s the one problem that has stayed with me. The answer hasn’t. I recalled it as being 13, but more recent googling tells me some ways of working it out put it at five, others one or two. But that’s not the point. Not for me.
The point is that, in any breath we take, there’s a good chance we’re inhaling a molecule or more exhaled by Caesar in that particular breath – that breath that became air and circulated. That keeps circulating throughout the atmosphere more than 2,000 years later. A breath forever linked to a pivot of history, and we’re all breathing it, unknowingly. It connects us with Caesar and that moment, and also with each other. And we all inhale that moment in equal measure.
When I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I thought back to the Caesar problem. The book is a novel made up of six novellas arranged like a nest of tables, each set into the middle of its predecessor. The writing is bold and brilliant and it’s one of my favourite books. Each piece has its own distinct voice and story, but there are links between them to which the characters can only be oblivious.
It was months after reading it that I saw Mitchell had explained one of the main links on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub: “Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark.”
He’s the author, he gets to choose reincarnation of a soul as his link if he wants. But I saw science. A small planet is a closed system, give or take a few meteorites arriving and, in the case of Earth, spacecraft departing. Coincidence and chance encounters are inevitable as molecules, genes, stories circulate over and over. Caesar’s last breath had stuck with me as a metaphor, not as a physics problem.
So I explored that with my novel Empires. For once, I stepped back from the life training we humans have that tells us not to value coincidence and, as I built my five linked stories, I deliberately searched for coincidence, using the tools that only this century has given us.
Beethoven found his way into one story, and composer, conductor and impresario Johann Peter Salomon into another, each for his own reasons. As I later combed through their biographies, I learned their birthplaces. Salomon, 1745, Bonngasse 515, Bonn. Beethoven, 1770, Bonngasse 515, Bonn. My two real-world characters had been born in the same house, 25 years apart.
The first part of the novel is set in Girdwood, in Alaska. It’s there because a group of us went there for my partner’s 50th, and by the end of our week there I’d realised I’d be using it in the novel. Eventually, in my search for the tiny connections I might bury as Easter eggs in my story, it occurred to me to find out how Girdwood got its name.
James Girdwood sold supplies to hapless goldminers on the banks of Glacier Creek in the goldrush of the late 1890s. As is often the case, he came out of it better than the miners, and he died a wealthy man in New Jersey. But before he tried his luck in Alaska, he had been a linen merchant in Belfast.
With my family having been in the linen industry in Northern Ireland at that time, I wondered if we had a business connection. I googled “‘James Girdwood’ linen+Belfast” and one of the first hits was my family tree. We’re not connected by the Irish linen industry in the late-19th century; we’re related. We’re descended from different sons of Stothard Mercer and Ellen Forsythe who, when those sons were born in the 1790s, were farming outside Magheralin, County Down. They are James Girdwood’s two-times-great grandparents and my five-times-great grandparents.
I had ended up in Girdwood because it had Alaska’s only resort that offered the experiences we wanted – no other reason than that – and now, to me, it’s the place named after Uncle Jimmy.
How much of this do we miss when we aren’t looking for it? We only get through the day because we blinker ourselves to the tangents of coincidence. Because coincidences are everywhere. I look for them more now. It’s a habit that’s hard to break. And I keep finding them.
Caesar’s last breath can change the way you think. I’m not an adherent to any faith and I’m not even vaguely countercultural, but it’s connectedness. It connects us all. To each other, to events, to the consequences of our actions and the actions of others. The threads linking people and linking things can break, but it’s only the story that’s lost, not the connection.
Our planet seems big, but it’s not. Nothing we inhale goes away when we exhale it. Our breaths, like Caesar’s, turn over and over. Our plastic doesn’t disappear into an infinite space without consequences, and nor does our carbon. We and the molecules we eat and breathe and share are far more tightly enmeshed than we realise. We really are all in this together, for better or worse. And our own individual actions really will add up to decide which of those it will be.
• Empires by Nick Earls is out now in Australia through Vintage