Berlin Story

Berlin Story
The New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 15, 2009

First novels by young writers who see the world with a fresh, original vision and write about it with clarity and restraint are rare enough to begin with. When you add in the fact that Chloe Aridjis’ “Book of Clouds” is also a stunningly accurate portrait of Berlin, as well as a thoughtful portrayal of a young Mexican Jew drifting through her life abroad, this novel becomes required reading of the most pleasurable sort.


By Chloe Aridjis

209 pp. Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic. Paper, $14

First Chapter: ‘Book of Clouds’ (March 15, 2009)

Tatiana, the narrator, is one of five children whose parents run a Jewish deli in Mexico City. For several years now, this woman in her 20s has been living in Berlin, having minimal contact with her family, getting by on low-paying jobs and seeing almost no one. Her Sundays are a wasteland of loneliness during which she takes long walks through the city; her weekdays, when she is not freezing in her unheated apartment, are spent transcribing the never-to-be-published notes of an elderly German-Jewish historian. Her closest connection, her preferred form of human contact, is with the recorded voice that announces the stops on the S-Bahn. “There was a spring to his utterances,” she tells us, “a buoyancy packed and delivered in anticipation of every stop, and I would put away my book or newspaper and sit back and listen to the stations as they were rolled off, one by one, uninterrupted — that is, if other presences didn’t interfere, such as plainclothes ticket inspectors or junkie musicians, their pleas for attention like dark blood clots in the city’s circulation.”

Clearly there is something slightly off about Tatiana. Yet she is completely reliable in regard to the alluring, unnerving city she captures in her observations. From the massive, anonymous housing blocks of the former East Berlin, to the late-night and often literally underground “parties” held in abandoned buildings, to the centrally located Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (which she experiences as eerily disorienting on a shadowy, moonlit night), Tatiana’s Berlin is exactly the one you will find if you go there. In some ways her alienation makes her an even more accurate observer than a “normal” person would be, because she focuses excessively on the ghosts who are not present as well as the strangers who are — and that, too, is part of the real Berlin.

“Book of Clouds” has a plot of sorts. Through her elderly employer, Tatiana meets a German meteorologist, whom she then begins to date even though he “wasn’t my type.” (But then nobody is, apparently.) “He had a blunt nose, probably broken once or twice,” she notices at their first meeting, “and a mouth that didn’t close completely, with a small crack between the lips that made it seem as if they were on permanent standby, ready to eat or kiss or answer a question.” Nothing much happens in the relationship, just as nothing much happens at her job, but toward the end of the book there is a violent episode involving neo-Nazi punks that precipitates her departure from Berlin.

I have to say that I wish the plot had gone another way: not that this particular kind of violence could never happen in real life (it all too obviously could, and does), but as a fictional device in a novel about a Jew in Germany, it is just a little too predictable, a little too pat. Still, this is a minor complaint about a book that has so much to recommend it, not least its ability to convey both actual and distorted realities at once.

Wendy Lesser edits The Threepenny Review. Her most recent book, “Room for Doubt,” is partly about Berlin.

‘Book of Clouds’ by Chloe Aridjis

A young woman drifting through Berlin finds definition in helping transcribe the tapes of an aging historian.
By Regina Marler, LA Times, April 3, 2009

Most people who travel by plane can remember the first time they broke through the clouds and gazed down on that undulant white blanket, so cleanly defined in the unfiltered sunlight. This is also the vantage from which almost all contemporary fiction is written: high above action that unfolds lucidly and deliberately for the reader. But as its title suggests, Chloe Aridjis’ debut novel, “Book of Clouds,” holds us in the mist, just below the point at which we can orient ourselves. Although set in post-wall Berlin, the mood is less German than Japanese: restrained, melancholy and subacid, spiked with a dreamlike urban surrealism.

Tatiana is a Jewish Mexican expatriate in her late 20s whose first year in Berlin — “the omphalos of evil, the place where World War II had ended and, according to some, where World War III would begin” — was an award from the Goethe Institute in Mexico City for having the highest score on its nationwide German language exam. An additional four years have passed and Tatiana remains in the city, subsisting on temp jobs, a monthly money order from her father and a vague air of expectation.

None of her brief friendships or romances have lasted and, although curious and observant, she remains unattached, even to places. She rarely phones home. About once a year, she sheds her apartment for a new one: “Spaces became too familiar, too elastic, too accommodating. Boredom and exasperation would set in. And though of course nothing really changed from one roof to another, I liked to harbor the illusion that small variations occurred within me, that with each move something was being renewed.”

However alienated from others, Tatiana is deeply inhabited by her author, who moves calmly from one precinct to another in Tatiana’s unusual mind. We fall on each detail with a curiosity like Tatiana’s, avidly following our heroine even while she absorbs recorded announcements on the U-Bahn or sweeps her apartment floor after an August thunderstorm.

Tatiana’s emotional stasis is broken by a new job transcribing tapes for an elderly historian, Doktor Friedrich Weiss, at his home in Savignyplatz. Although Weiss barely makes eye contact with Tatiana and always uses the formal “sie” when addressing her, she finds the work oddly intimate and relishes Weiss’ mesmerizing voice on the tapes and her quiet hours in his study. His interest in the phenomenology of space, particularly in Berlin, taps into a subterranean current of anxiety in Tatiana. “Spaces cling to their pasts,” Weiss says:

“[A]nd sometimes the present finds a way of accommodating this past and sometimes it doesn’t. At best, a peaceful coexistence is struck up between temporal planes but most of the time it is a constant struggle for dominion. Objects would also form part of the inquiry, Weiss added, the reverberation of objects, the resonance of things lost banished or displaced.”

Eventually Weiss asks Tatiana to conduct some interviews for his book and in this way she meets a meteorologist named Jonas Krantz, from the former German Democratic Republic (East Berlin), whose fascination with clouds — with vulnerability, mutability, impermanence — gives this novel its symbolic framework.

In fact, two ideas run counter to each other throughout “Book of Clouds”: what is lost and, as Weiss reflects above, what lingers. This adds a murky indefiniteness to the novel that feels uncomfortably like real life — not just the visual palimpsest of the new layered on the old that one encounters in any European city, but the emotional pull forward and backward in time, the sense of being spread thinly over a span of years far longer than our lifetimes and of grappling with the loves and sufferings of the dead. When Tatiana finally confronts one of the random survivals of Berlin’s unsavory past — chalked scores on the wall of an abandoned underground “Gestapo bowling alley” — she responds from a well of rage and frustrated justice she has not acknowledged in herself before.

Aridjis, who lives in Berlin, is a daughter of the distinguished Mexican novelist and environmental activist Homero Aridjis and has a doctorate from Oxford in poetry and magic in 19th century France. Magic and poetry are everywhere in “Book of Clouds” as well, and the reader who can appreciate “the fogs of time and the obfuscation that surrounds them” will find here an unsettling atmosphere unlike anything in recent fiction.

Marler is the editor of “Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America on to Sex.”