I read most of Book of Clouds, the first novel by Chloe Aridjis, appropriately, on a long-haul flight to Chile, mostly above the cloud cover. Clouds are the central (perhaps over-obvious) symbol in an engaging narrative about a lonely young woman called Tatiana, a Jewish Mexican linguist adrift in Berlin after five years of solitude (lonely as a cloud?).
The novel opens with her teenage hallucinatory vision of a female centenarian Hitler on the U-Bahn in 1986, three years before the fall of the Wall, that ‘intractable curtain of cement’ that divided the city for decades, and the presence of which still haunts it – one can see its trace picked out in the pavements and streets.
Every 10 or 12 months Tatiana moves apartments: ‘Spaces became too familiar, too elastic, too accommodating. Boredom and exasperation would set in’ – she suffers from ‘restlessness’. That usage of ‘too accommodating’ is revealing of her illogical inability to settle. From the empty apartment above come disturbing noises. Like Caliban, she’s troubled and intrigued by them. Or is she imagining them?
She strives to fill the ‘empty, loveless hours’ by wandering the streets of the city, alert and observant, marginalised, a true étrangère (in the French senses), but with the hypersensitive antennae of a poet. Here’s a typically lyrical description of one such dérive as a storm brews:
The restless air was closing in…A plastic bag, the discarded ghost of the object it once carried, was blown toward me and clung to my leg for a few seconds before I managed to shake it off. Birds twittered nervously in the trees but were nowhere to be found, not a single beak, claw or feather when I looked up. And then they fell silent. The sky had grown a shade or two darker, a slate grey cumulonimbus blotting the horizon.
Aridjis shows here she has a poet’s ear for rhythms, and an eye for the mundane image made numinous, even disturbing, defamiliarised (those disembodied, nervous birds). It’s not all grim though; Aridjis can be quite amusing in her wryness, for example in a description of a Russian market stallholder: ‘his nose stuck out like the muzzle of a malnourished fox.’
We begin to wonder if Tatiana isn’t perhaps going slightly mad in a Berlin that’s a combination of so many literary ‘unreal cities’ full of spectral figures, past and present. But she also portrays the real Berlin very evocatively, its cafés, ice-cream stalls, tram sidings and beggars.
Along with clouds and other weather events it’s time and the ghosts of the past that permeate the novel. Decades of dirt and dust rise up through the floorboards after a storm, and she feels ‘something in the building’s very foundation had shifted, ever so slightly, revealing new fault lines’ – images of the seismic, cosmic, meteorological urban sediments of time accumulate, clouding Tatiana’s (and our) sense of place and self.
In Berlin, an ‘omphalos of evil’, she’d become ‘a professional in lost time…The city ran on its own chronometric scale.’ On Sundays the solitude ‘hardened into something else’ – loneliness. One of her only high points is the S-Bahn announcer’s voice, which pleases her with its mechanical inhumanity, ‘especially on days when I felt disconnected from the city, attached by the thinnest of strings’.
This is the Berlin of peripatetic Walser and Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, experienced by Tatiana as coeval with the Holocaust and the TV tower in Alexanderplatz.
She has bizarre, often unsettling encounters on her random journeys as a flâneuse, observing urban existence like a latter-day Baudelaire in this ‘fourmillante cité’. There’s a mysterious Xoloitzcuintle dog (Xolo) that ‘in Aztec myth would guide human souls through Mietlan, the ninth and lowest circle of the labyrinthine underworld, to their eternal resting place.’ Berlin’s past interpenetrates its present, life and death/afterlife coexist in this visionary protagonist’s liminal consciousness. Symptomatic of this are the ‘ghost stations’ of old East Berlin.
She gets a job working for the reclusive Dr Weiss (owner of the Xolo), an eccentric historian in his 70s, with 14 books published, but nothing recent. She transcribes his antiquated cassette tapes for projected essays on
the phenomenology of space, specifically in Berlin. Spaces cling to their pasts, he said, and sometimes the present finds a way of accommodatinig 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…[also] the reverberation of objects, the resonance of things long banished or displaced…
The quietly surreal tone that permeates the narrative is also seen when Dr Weiss tells Tatiana that he knew a man in her home city, Mexico: ‘a photographer from Budapest named Chiki Weisz…He was married to Leonora Carrington.’ She was indeed a surrealist painter and author (1917-2011), who fled the Nazis in Europe, lived in the US and Mexico; his near-namesake Weisz was a photographer who worked with Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War.
She interviews Jonas Krantz, 36 – one of the child artists who’d depicted the old East Berlin. He lives in an outer, bleak Plattenbau district on the 18th floor, ‘much closer to the clouds.’
As a meteorologist he loves clouds, which enables Aridjis to return to her central image; here he is, talking about them:
…all structures are collapsible. Just look at their own existence, condemned to rootlessness and fragmentation. Each cloud faces death through loss of form, drifting towards its death…destined to self-destruct…the fogs of time and all the obfuscation that surrounds them.
He strives to see contemporary Berlin as more than a ‘museum of horror.’ Yet Tatiana has a terrifying experience in a former Gestapo Bowling Alley, part of the spectral underground world, ‘a whole topography that lay, forgotten, twenty or thirty or forty feet down…’
There she tries to rub out the chalk scores scratched on the wall by the erstwhile bowlers, but ‘nothing can truly be rubbed away or blotted out…the more you try to rub something away the darker it becomes.’
The poetic, muted, ethereal style of this haunting novel persists until the final sentence, as she flies back to Mexico (another long-haul trip, somewhere above the clouds) after a violent encounter with neo-Nazi thugs: ‘there was little difference between clouds and shadows and other phenomena given shape by the human imagination.’
Aridjis occasionally lapses into stereotyping Berlin’s terrible Nazi legacy; her characters and slightly creaky plot are less compelling than the dissonant, vatic-magical mood and style created so deftly through the language.
I found it an intriguing novel with a highly original take on the psychogeography of a city as experienced by a sensitive individual.
Chloe Aridjis, Book of Clouds, Vintage paperback, 2010; first published 2009