“Ghostwritten” (Post 2/4)


[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/4

Post 3/4

Post 4/4

Hong Kong

The Plot:

Neal Brose is struggling through a divorce, a money laundering deal, and sharing his apartment with the ghost of a young girl.

[45] Reference:

The moon, the moon, in the after



The moon, the moon, in the afternoon.


I can’t find the source of this. It seems like a song or poem or rhyme. Anyone know?

[46] Reference:

There’ll be a white shirt hanging in the closet, where she hangs them up every Sunday, every one the skin of a gwai lo shagged and fleeced.



Gweilo or gwai lo is a common Cantonese slang term for Westerners. It has a history of racially deprecatory use. Cantonese speakers frequently use “gweilo” to refer to Westerners in general use, in a non-derogatory context, although whether this type of usage is offensive is disputed by both Cantonese and Westerners alike.


Is it possible to worry more than I do and not… not just die from it?


[58] Mitchell’s fictional world is connected through his books and, in our first link to Cloud Atlas, we get a character named Denholme Cavendish, Timothy Cavendish’s older brother (Cloud Atlas Post 2, notes [47 – 59] and [80 – 89]):

As the comings and goings of Account 1390931 became ever more complex, my security arrangements became ever more intricate, my lies more incredible as one near miss lurched to another. The truth is that Denholme Cavendish’s yes-men don’t want to know the truth that even people handicapped by an Etonian education must dimly be able to smell by now.



Like most superiors, he’ll be too proud to ask me the simplest questions.


[60] Neal sees Satoru and Tomoyo from “Tokyo” in a diner:

She was Chinese, I could tell that, but they spoke in Japanese. He had a saxophone case, and a small backpack with airline tags still attached. They could barely have been out of high school. He needed a good long sleep. They didn’t hug or cloy over each other like a lot of Chinese kids do these days. They just held hands over the table.


[61] Reference:

Dad used to take me fishing at weekends. A gloomy reservoir, lost in Snowdonia.



Snowdonia is a region in north Wales and a national park of 823 square miles. The English name for the area derives from Snowdon, which is the highest mountain in Wales.


A black dog eyed me with its one eye, looking at what I am.


[63] Neal goes to visit the Big Buddha on Lantau, earlier referenced by Tomoyo in “Tokyo” (Post 1, note [39]):

A woman stood up from behind a cabbage the size of a small hut. She said, “You going to the Big Buddha, yes?” (…)

“Yes,” I said.


[64] Continuity error. Neal claims:

I never even met the maid until Katy was back in Britain.


A couple of pages later, Neal describes how Katy (his wife), while still on Lantau, asked him to speak to the maid:

And the next Sunday I met the maid. So you see, Katy brought us together (…) After thirty seconds of being in the same room, I knew that she and I would end up fucking each other, and I knew that she knew it, too.


[65] Vocabulary:

Then it plummeted like a gannet into the sea.


“Clear Island”:

At her age Mo Muntervary transformed into a spotty gannet.



noun – 1. a large seabird with mainly white plumage, known for catching fish by plunge-diving.

2. (British, informal) a greedy person


I wanted her again. This was costing me more than money, so I may as well push for maximum value and damn myself properly. I got up and fucked her from behind, on the dressing table. We broke the mirror.


[67] References:

“But stratospheric rents on Central and Victoria Peak are a rather more concrete reality.”



Central is the central business district of Hong Kong. It is located in Central and Western District, on the north shore of Hong Kong Island.

Victoria Peak is a mountain in the western half of Hong Kong Island. It is also known as Mount Austin, and locally as The Peak. With an elevation of 1,811 feet, it is the highest mountain on Hong Kong. The surrounding area of public parks and high-value residential land is the area that is normally meant by the name The Peak.


“Beware,” she warned without turning around, “of what is at the other end of the door.”

While I was trying to work out what the fuck that was supposed to mean, Katy stood up and went into the spare bedroom. I heard her lock it.


[69] Reference:

It reminded me of the Brecon Beacons.



A mountain range in South Wales.


I grew up when I realized that everywhere was basically the same, and so were the women.


[71] One of the most compelling pieces of writing in the book. I find it interesting that Mitchell didn’t open Neal’s story with this; it’s such a good hook:

Unless you’ve lived with a ghost, you can’t know the truth of it. You assume that morning, noon, and night, you’re walking around obsessed, fearful, and waiting for the exorcist to call. It’s not really like that. It’s more like living with a very particular cat.

For the last few months I’ve been living with three women. One was a ghost, who is now a woman. One was a woman, who is now a ghost. One is a ghost and always will be. But this isn’t a ghost story: the ghost is in the background, where she has to be. If she was in the foreground, she’d be a person.



“What’s he saying?”

“He’s begging.”

“How much does he want?” A stupid question.

“He’s not begging for money.”

“What’s he begging for?”

“He’s begging for time.”

“Why does he do that?”

“He thinks you’re wasting yours, so you must have plenty to spare.”


[73] Reference:

The atmosphere in my apartment was palpably different. Muted Sibelius rather than thunderous Wagner.



Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) was a Finnish composer and violinist of the late Romantic and early-modern periods.

[74] Reference:

I went to Canton once, a right fucking shithole it is too.


Could refer to several locations, but my best guess is:

Guangzhou, historically romanized as Canton, is the capital and largest city of Guangdong Province in southeastern China. Located on the Pearl River about 75 miles north-northwest of Hong Kong.


I’d always assumed it was his leather chair that creaked, but now I wondered whether or not it was really him.



Now that I’m dying again I recognize the signs.


Neal’s death directly affects three other characters –

“Holy Mountain”: (see note [93])


“Mr. Gregorski’s suspicions were aroused when your boyfriend ‘lost’ a wall of money he was laundering through a reputable Hong Kong law firm, and the only excuse he could come up with was that his contact there suddenly dropped dead of diabetes!”


“Clear Island”:

“While I was in Hong Kong I saw a man die.”

“How did he die?”

“I don’t know… He just collapsed, right in front of me. His heart, I guess. There’s this big silver Buddha who lives out on one of the outlying islands. There was a coach park around the base of the steps that led up to it, with a few stalls. I’d bought a bowl of noodles, and was slurping them up in the shade. He was only a young man. I wonder why I thought of him? Big silver things on island hills, maybe? The peculiar thing was, he seemed to be laughing.”


Holy Mountain

The Plot:

An old woman operating a tea shack on a path to the Holy Mountain recounts the events of her life. She’s lived through Chinese feudalism, Communism, and economic reforms while guided and comforted by a talking tree.

[77] References:

Fat people from Chengdu and further drive up in their own cars. I watched them. Fumes, beeps, noise, oil. Or they drive up in taxis, sitting in the back like Lady Muck Duck.



Chengdu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province in Southwest China.

Lady Muck is a British term to refer to a woman who has pretensions to be of high station but who in reality is anything but.

[78] Reference:

Their magnificent, strange words paraded past. Words about somebody called Sun Yat-sen, somebody called Russia, somebody else called Europe.



Sun Yat-sen (1866 – 1925) was a Chinese revolutionary, first president and founding father of the Republic of China, and medical practitioner. Sun is considered to be one of the greatest leaders of modern China, but his political life was one of constant struggle and frequent exile.

[79] Vocabulary (and a scene experienced at both ends of the woman’s life):

In the misty dusk an old woman came. She labored slowly up the stairs to where I lay, wondering how I could defend myself if the Warlord’s Son called again on his way down. “Don’t worry,” she said. “The Tree will protect you. The Tree will tell you when to run, and when to hide.” I knew she was a spirit because I only heard her words after her lips had finished moving, because the lamplight shone through her, and because she had no feet. I knew she was a good spirit because she sat on the chest at the end of the bed and sang a lullaby about a coracle, a cat, and the river running round.



I climbed to the upstairs room, where a young girl was sleepless with fear. I knew she was a spirit, because the moonlight shone through her, and she couldn’t hear me properly. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “The Tree will protect you. The Tree will tell you when to run and when to hide.” She looked at me. I sat on the chest at the end of my bed and sang her the only lullaby I know, about a cat, a coracle, and a river running around.




noun – (especially in Wales and Ireland) – a small, round boat made of wickerwork, covered with a watertight material, propelled with a paddle.

[80] Reference:

I was told the whole story: he’d gone to Leshan and spent half my dowry on opium and brothels.



Leshan is a prefecture-level city located at the confluence of the Dadu and Min rivers in Sichuan Province, China. It’s population is over three million. The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 233 foot tall stone statue, built during the Tang Dynasty. It is built out of a cliff face near the city of Leshan. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and it is by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

[81] Reference:

These same uncles all agreed that the Japanese would never get this far down the Yangtze, nor this far into the mountains.



The Yangtze River, known in China as the Chang Jiang, is the longest river in Asia and the third-longest in the world.

[82] Reference:

“We are requisitioning this wayside inn in the name of His Imperial Egg of Japan.”


I don’t understand the reference. The Faberge eggs created for the Russian Tsars are known as the “Imperial” Faberge eggs, but I don’t think that has anything to do with this.

[83] Reference:

If the Kuomintang forces took over the Valley soon, he could possibly arrange a union with a Nationalist administrator.



The Kuomintang of China (KMT), often translated as the Nationalist Party of China or Chinese Nationalist Party, is a major political party in the Republic of China, currently the second-largest in the country. The KMT was founded by Song Jiaoren and Sun Yat-sen shortly after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.

[84] Reference:

“I’ve heard they’re heading to Taiwan to join Chiang Kaishek.”



Chiang Kai-shek (1887 – 1975) was a Chinese political and military leader who served as the leader of the Republic of China between 1928 and 1975.


When the wind blew the leaves streamed up the path like rats before a sorcerer.



My father was dying as he had lived. With the minimum effort possible.



Nothing often poses in men as wisdom.


[88] Reference (and introduction to Caspar, a main character in “Mongolia”):

That night a foreigner was staying, and a real man and his wife and son from Kunming. The foreigner couldn’t speak. He communicated in gestures like a monkey. (…) My visitors’ son couldn’t sleep, so the mother was telling him a story. It was a pretty story, about three animals who think about the fate of the world.

Suddenly the foreigner speaks! In real words! “Excuse me, where did you hear that story first? Please try to remember!”

The mother is as surprised as me. “My mother told it to me when I was a little girl. Her mother told it to her. She was born in Mongolia.”

“Where in Mongolia?”

“I only know she was born in Mongolia. I don’t know where.”

“I see. I’m sorry for troubling you.”

He clunks around. He comes downstairs and asks me to let him out.

“I’m not giving you a refund, you know,” I warn him.

“That doesn’t matter. Good-bye. I wish you well.”

Strange words! But he is determined to leave, so I slide the bolts and swing open the door. The night is starry, without a moon. The foreigner was upbound, but he leaves downbound. “Where are you going?” I blurt out.

The mountain, forest, and darkness close their doors on him.

“What’s up with him?” I ask my Tree.

My Tree has nothing to say, either.



Kunming is the capital and largest city in Yunnan Province, Southwest China.

Caspar’s actions (and his sudden ability to speak Chinese and the Tree’s silence) is explained in “Mongolia” (note [107]).

[89] Reference:

Chicken-brains who still believed in politics talked in excited voices about the Four Modernizations, the trial of the Gang of Four, and a benign spirit come to save China called Deng Xiaoping.



The Four Modernizations were goals first set forth by Zhou Enlai in 1963, and enacted by Deng Xiaoping, starting in 1978, to strengthen the fields of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology in China.

The Gang of Four was a political faction composed of four Chinese Communist Party officials. They came to prominence during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and were later charged with a series of treasonous crimes. The gang’s leading figure was Mao Zedon’s last wife, Jiang Qing.

Deng Xiaoping was a Chinese revolutionary and statesman. He was the paramount leader of China from 1978 until his retirement in 1989.


Grudges are demons that gnaw away your bone marrow. Time was already doing a good enough job of that. Lord Buddha has often told me that forgiveness is vital to life. I agree. Not for the well-being of the forgiven, though, but for the well-being of the forgiver.


[91] Reference:

In the sunlight on my desk,

I write a long, long letter.


This appears to be an original of Mitchell’s. I like it quite a lot.


I added “writers” to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up.


[93] The old woman’s great-granddaughter was Neal’s maid in “Hong Kong”:

“My employer died. A foreigner, a lawyer with a big company, he was extremely wealthy. He was very generous to me in his will.”

With the intuition of an old dying woman, I know she isn’t telling the whole truth.


The night before Neal’s death, he withdrew a large sum of money and hid it in his flat. It looks like the maid found it.


The Plot:

A spirit who can jump from body to body by touch is attempting to find its origins.

This isn’t explained right away and Mitchell leaves the reader confused and disoriented much longer than he should.

[94] Reference:

The large sky made Caspar think of the land where he had grown up, somewhere called Zetland.



Zetland is an inner-eastern suburb of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. This is contradicted (note [96]) when Caspar’s traveling companion, Sherry, tells Mo Montervary that she is from Australia and Caspar is Danish.

[95] Reference:

Other than chatting politely with Caspar about hostel prices in Xi’an and Beijing, and the new bursts of violence in Palestine, they kept themselves to themselves.



Xi’an is the capital of Shaanzi province, located in the northwest of China.

[96] The narrator from “Clear Island,” Mo, is a character on this train. We get parts of the same scene in both stories:

Also in the Swede’s compartment was a middle-aged Irish woman who either gazed out of the window or wrote numbers in a black notebook.



“Hello.” Sherry’s eyes turned towards my host.

“How’s the War and Peace? I have to admit, I’ve never read any Russians.”

“Long.” (…)

A half-naked Chinese toddler ran up the corridor, making a zun-zun noise which may have been a helicopter, or maybe a horse.


“Clear Island”:

The Trans-Siberian shunted through a slumberous, forested evening in northern China. I was still toying with matrix mechanics, but getting nowhere. I’d been stuck with the same problem since Shanghai and now I was wandering in circles.

“Mind if I join you?”

The dining car had emptied. Did I know this young woman?

“Sherry’s the name,” said the Australian girl, waiting for me to say something.

“Please, take a seat, let me move this junk for you….”

“Maths, eh?”

Unusual for a young person to want to talk with an oldie like me. Still, we’re a long way from home, and don’t generalize, Mo. “Yes, I’m a maths teacher,” I said. “That’s a thick book.”

War and Peace.”

“Lot of it about. Particularly the former.”

A half-naked Chinese toddler ran up the corridor, making a zun-zun noise which may have been a helicopter, or maybe a horse. (…)

“It’s good to be out of my compartment! There are two Swedish guys, they’re drunk and having a belching competition. It’s like back home. Men can be such drongoes.”

“I could get your compartment changed. Our babushka’s tame. I bribed her with a bottle of Chinese whiskey.”

“No worries, thanks. I grew up with five brothers, so I can handle two Swedes. We get to UB in thirty-six hours. Plus, there’s a hunky Danish guy in the bunk below me.”


[97] Reference:

“I’ve never even thought about the place. Maybe I smoked too much pot at Lake Dal.”



Dal is a lake in Srinagar (Dal Lake is a misnoym as Dal in Kashmiri means lake), the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. The urban lake, which is the second largest in the state, is integral to tourism and recreation in Kashmir and is named the “Jewel in the crown of Kashmir.”

[98] Reference:

“So,” said Sherry, four hours later. “Grand Central Station, Ulan Bator.”



Ulaanbaatar or Ulan Bator is Mongolia’s capital and largest city. Its population is over 1.3 million; almost half of the country’s total population.

[99] Reference:

A group of steely old women were waiting to get on the train, bound for Irkutsk.



Irkutsk is a city and the administrative center of Irkutsk Oblast, Russia, and one of the largest cities in Siberia.


Backpackers are strange. I have a lot in common with them. We live nowhere and we are strangers everywhere. We drift, often on a whim, searching for something to search for.


[101] References:

“Get this for Soviet doublespeak. From the nineteen-forties, during Choibalsan’s presidency.”



Khorloogiin Choibalsan (1895 – 1952) was the Communist leader of the Mongolian People’s Republic and Marshal of the Mongolian armed forces from the 1930s until his death in 1952. Often referred to as “the Stalin of Mongolia,” Choibalsan oversaw violent Soviet-ordered purges in the late 1930s that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Mongolians. His intense persecution of Mongolia’s Buddhists brought about their near complete extinction in the country. (This becomes very important in the end of non-corporeal’s story.)

[102] References:

“You mean Mongolians are designed for arduous lifetimes of flock-tending, child-bearing, frostbite, illiteracy, Giardia lamblia, and ger-dwelling?”

“I don’t want to argue. I want to drive to the Khangai mountains.”



Giardia lamblia, also known as Giardia intestinalisis, is a parasite that colonizes and reproduces in the small intestine.

The Khangai Mountains are a mountain range in central Mongolia, some 400 kilometers west of Ulaanbaatar.

[103] Vocabulary:

It’s like trying to make yourself invisible in a prying village as opposed to a sprawling conurbation.



noun – an extended urban area, typically consisting of several towns merging with the suburbs of one or more cities.

[104] Vocabulary:

Buyant ripped off a gobbet of bread.



noun – a piece or lump of flesh, food, or other matter.

[105] References:

It was said he had lived for twenty years as a hermit on the slopes of Tavanbogd in the far-west province of Bayan Olgii.



The Tavan Bogd is a mountain massif in Mongolia, on the border with China and Russia. It’s highest peak, the Khuiten Peak is the highest point of Mongolia at 4374 meters above sea level.

Bayan-Olgii is the westernmost of the 21 aimags (provinces) of Mongolia.

[106] Reference:

One writer in Buenos Aires even suggested a name for what I am: noncorpum, and noncorpa if ever the day dawns when the singular becomes a plural. I spent a pleasant few months debating metaphysics with him, and we wrote some stories together.


Possibly referring to Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986)? His stories were interconnected by themes of dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, fictional writers, philosophy and religion. Sounds like the kind of man the non-corporeal would like to hang out with.


The Holy Mountain was the only place on Earth I felt any tie to. For a decade I inhabited the monks who lived on its mountainsides. I led a tranquil enough life. I found companionship with an old woman who lived in a tea shack and believed I was a speaking tree.


The non-corporeal moved into Caspar when he visited the mountain (note [88]) and had him hike down again to head to Mongolia, leaving the old woman’s “speaking tree” silent.

[108] References:

“In the name of Khukdei Mergen Khan art thou cast hence from the body of this woman!”

Human males. “And then what do you suggest?”

The shaman shouted. “Be gone! In the name of Erkhii Mergen, who divided night from day, I command it!”


Searching Khukdei Mergen Khan only gets results from Ghostwritten. This may be a case of an alternate spelling being more common but I can’t track it down. Or, wait – is the shaman using his own name?

Erkhii Mergen is a character in a Mongolian legend. I found a version of it on welcome2mongolia.com


Access to memories does not guarantee access to truth.


[110] References:

Though he was blind he lived for a hundred years, traveling Mongolia on the Khan of Hell’s horse, from the Altai mountains in the far west, to the Gobi desert in the south, to the rivers of Hentii Nuruu, telling stories and foreseeing the future.



The Altai Mountains are a mountain range in Central and East Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan come together, and where the rivers Irtysh and Ob have their headwaters.

The Hetiyn Mountains (Hentiyn Nuruu in Mongolian) are a mountain range in north-central Mongolia. They extend northeast from near Ulaanbaatar to the border of Russia.

[111] Reference:

The road we are traveling, from Ulan Bator to Dalanzagad [sic], is the least worst in the country.



Dalanzadgad is the capital of Omnogovi Aimag in Mongolia. It is located 340 miles south of Ulaanbaatar.

[112] Reference:

“Did I ever tell you about the time Horloyn Choibalsan came to my school? In a big, black car. A black Zil.”



AMO ZiL is a major Russian automobile, truck, military vehicle, and heavy equipment manufacturer based in the city of Moscow. ZiL has produced armored cars for most Soviet leaders.


The noise of the gunshot chased its own tail through all the empty rooms.


[114] Reference:

A cup of airag.



Airag, also spelled ayrag, is the Mongolian word for fermented horse milk, an alcoholic spirit. It is more widely known as kumis throughout Central Asia.

[115] Reference:

One of the last Gobi bears shambled along the fringe of forest.



The Gobi bear is a subspecies of the brown bear that is found in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. It is listed as critically endangered, the population less than fifty adults in the world.

[116] References:

I was in the province of Renchinhumbe, near the lake of Tsagaan Nuur and the town of Zoolon.


I can’t find Renchinhumbe with this spelling.

Tsagaannuur is a sum (district) of Khovsgol aimag in the north of Mongolia.

I can’t find anything about the town of Zoolon.

[117] Reference:

I learned from Beebee about the moose, elk, and lynx, about the argali sheep, wolves, and how to trap wild boars.



The argali, or the mountain sheep, is a wild sheep that roams the highlands of Central Asia.

[118] References:

In a lost spring of the Buriat nation, Khori Tumed, a young hunter, was roaming the southernmost shore of Lake Baikal.



The Buryats, numbering approximately 500,000, are the largest indigenous group in Siberia, mainly concentrated in their homeland, the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia. They are the major northern subgroup of the Mongols.

Lake Baikal is a rift lake in Russia, located in southern Siberia, between Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and the Buryat Republic to the southeast. Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world, containing roughly 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water.

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