A Pure Woman. Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World

Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World. John Murray, 2011. First published in New Zealand in 2010.

This is a love story and a ghost story.

Jones HMDWorld coverIt tells, in differing, often conflicting versions and recensions – as in the Akutagawa story on which the Kurosawa film ‘Rashomon’ was based – how a young African woman has no real identity, no substance in the eyes of Europeans she meets; even her name used later in the novel is the one she stole from a woman she encounters in Italy, with tragic consequences: Ines, one form of the name Agnes – which significantly derives from the Greek for ‘pure’ or ‘holy’. Ines, like Tess, is a Pure Woman.

The first sections of this gripping novel by the New Zealander Lloyd Jones (who was shortlisted for the Booker for Mister Pip in 2007) consist of the multiple accounts from those who knew her at the start of her quest to reach Berlin. The first is a co-worker at a swanky tourist hotel on the Arabian Sea patronised mostly by white Europeans, where it was a prerequisite for the staff that they shed all vestiges of past or identity: as human beings they were as substanceless as ghosts. Even this colleague/friend who knew her for some years never learned her name, where she came from in Africa, or even her birthday:

When we spoke of home we spoke of somewhere in the past. We might be from different countries but the world we came into contained the same clutter and dazzling light. All the same traps were set for us.

Here the language conveys some of the register of a non-native speaker of English, shot through with the poetic sensibility of Lloyd the artificer who filters these forensic, mediated voices of testimony through his own artist’s sensibility to present them to us. It’s an astonishingly accomplished act of multiple ventriloquism and narrative dexterity and ingenuity. In this quotation he conveys how, for women like these, the tourist resort and its hotel is a playground for the privileged guests, but dangerous for them if they forget their place, to be invisible:

You have to leave your past in order to become hotel staff…you had to be like the palms and the sea, pleasing to the eye. We must not take up space but be there whenever a guest needed us.

Lloyd’s is the heartbreakingly familiar one to those of us in affluent Europe of the desperate people risking their lives in unseaworthy boats to make the dangerous crossing to southern Italy from north Africa. Even if the boats survive the trip, unscrupulous traffickers, for whom the people they convey are just ‘merchandise’ or cargo, are likely, as they do to Ines, to throw them overboard miles from the shore and leave them to drown. Most can’t swim; fortunately, Ines can, and she makes it to land, there to continue her quest.

For unlike the other boat people, she isn’t trying to escape from economic hardship or political turmoil; she is searching for what has been stolen from her and taken to Europe, to Berlin – that city of ghosts, bullet-scarred memorials, squares haunted by the book-burning Nazis, and secret photos of atrocities committed by Berliners in their shameful past.

These early polyvocal fragments take on new significance in the second part of the novel when the perspective shifts and we learn why these narrators are testifying to Ines’ progress towards her goal. Then we realise how partial, unreliable, redacted or just downright untrue they were. Only near the end do we hear Ines’ own voice; like many women (see my recent post on The Silence of the Girls) and migrants, she is for most people both invisible and mute.

Many of those she encounters on her journey and in Berlin show her kindness and sympathy; others exploit her and fail to see beyond the colour of her skin or her gender. When she encounters a group of Italian hunters in the border mountains, for example, it’s notable that it’s the American among them who alone resists giving her money to help her on her way; back home, he says, she’d be seen as ‘an illegal, an alien’. The Italian narrator of this section is clearly horrified at this lack of humanity. This is 2010, pre-Trump.

In Ch. 9 a pastor ‘of the Ibo order’ who works at a refuge for African migrants gives his testimony to the ‘inspector’ who is gathering these witness statements about Ines. He laughs at the officer because

you come here to Berlin to ask a pastor, a black man, about ghosts. Presumably you mean white ghosts…For example, there are ghosts we do not see, the spooky ghosts, the ghosts of the American imagination…These are the ones small children worry are lying beneath their beds at night.

The other kind, the ‘real ones’, he says, ‘are simply the ones whom we choose not to see.’ African migrants like Ines fall into this category of the unseen. At first they have names. Then they don’t: ‘Soon they will turn into ghosts.’ Many are sent back to Libya to a hellish ‘detention centre’ where they ‘turn into ghosts’ and go mad or wander into the desert to die.

As tens of thousands of African migrants blow like sand across the sea, ‘fortress Europe’ nails down the shutters, says the pastor:

It pretends. It pretends like the child afraid of the ghost under the bed.

Lloyd is too astute an artist, however, to turn his compelling love story/quest into a diatribe or message-heavy polemic; this is the only place where the narrative preaches, and it’s because the speaker is a preacher who has good cause to do so. But his message lingers through the rest of the story like fading bells of city churches as one passes through a cemetery on the way to Alexanderplatz.

Lisa Hill at her blog recommended Lloyd’s most recent novel, but suggested I start with this one. She has excellent taste: it’s a terrific novel, and one I feel sure will haunt whoever reads it as it does me. Her post of 2010 examines another theme in the novel: the duality or multiplicity of possibilities or perspectives in interpreting alternative truths and their ‘dual capacities’ – hence the prominence in the narrative of discussions of amphibious lungfish, hermaphrodite snails, people of mixed ethnicity, etc. It’s possible to discern conflicting or opposing ‘truths’ in events or entities that seem irreconcilable, but which can be held simultaneously. It’s a subtle reading that I can’t do justice to in a few words here, for I’ve already gone on too long…I commend her post to you, as I do this remarkable novel. Thanks for the recommendation, Lisa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello Catalunya

Yesterday I posted my goodbye to Berlin – helping son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons (2 and 3) pack up and prepare to move to Sant Cugat del Vallès, a suburb of Barcelona.

TD jnr and I ended up having to drive the family car, with disgruntled cats, the 1800 km via

Greta

Greta

autobahn (roadworks everywhere), autoroute and autopista. So not much scenery to admire – endless, mind-numbing motorway embankments. It took two days.

Having an academic background in medieval hagiography, I was ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of the Catalan saint after whom the town they were moving to was named. Cugat is the Catalan for St Cucuphas.

He was a missionary of African origin, martyred in the fourth century under the persecution of Diocletian. He suffered some of the more unpleasant tortures before his dispatch, involving iron nails, scorpions, vinegar and pepper.

Monastery of Sant Cugat

Monastery of Sant Cugat

As his remains were said to have been buried at the site of his death in what became Sant Cugat, it seemed natural for the Benedictines who founded the monastery there in the ninth century to dedicate the house to this saint.  My picture shows the handsomely restored building in the town centre.

After a few days of unpacking and exploring the new neighbourhood, and discovering the local mosquitos particularly like the taste of Mrs TD, we all drove into the city and had a tapas lunch near the Ramblas – no sign of the recent awful attack – and took the boys to the Ciutadella park where there’s a fountain which famous local architect Antoni Gaudí helped design.

 

Ciutadella park

That’s me in the shadows by the hind leg of the mammoth in Ciutadella park

Arc de Triomf

The Arc de Triomf, near Ciutadella, designed for the 1888 World Fair by Vilaseca i Casanovas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next day Mrs TD and I, enjoying some adult time away from toddlers, visited the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s still unfinished cathedral. When we were here last summer we didn’t go inside; this time we did, and it was breathtaking. Here are some images to finish with.

Sagrada Familia

This figure in the Sagrada Familia looks sinister for a cathedral

Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Carvings outside

Sagrada Familia

Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin

Yesterday’s post on Elizabeth Taylor was the first in a few weeks. I thought I’d explain why.

My stepson, his wife and two nervous cats and two small boys were moving from Berlin (Prenzlauerberg district, in the former East sector) after many years there, working in the music business. They were going to Sant Cugat, 20km north of Barcelona.

Mrs TD and I flew over to help. I took a load of photos, quite sad to think we’d probably not go back to Prenzlauerberg. We’ll certainly revisit Berlin centre, though.

Carl Legien estate

Carl Legien estate, designed by Bruno Taut, on which is found the lovely Café Eckstern

Here’s a selection of those pictures, my valediction to an interesting area of the city, full of psychogeophraphical surprises – there are statues, carved details, murals, Bauhaus design – all round this area. Like the area around the café mentioned below: workers’ accommodation designed by Bruno Taut (associated with the Deutscher Werkbund, which included Walter Gropius) in the early 30s.

Just look up or around: there’s always something worth lingering over.  As I did in a post way back, my Berlin dérive...

Here’s the hof being used to store boxes before loading on the truck, with Berliners’ ubiquitous bikes parked next to them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s the removal truck:

 

 

 

 

 

pumping station

An old pumping station

 

pumping station

The pumping station looked indifferent from the distance, but there were delightful architectural details, iike this Berlin bear over a doorway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corner figure

Another little artistic detail over a corner

Girl statue

This charming statue is just outside the house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And we had several coffees, muesli, croissants, bagels and cakes from our favourite café round the corner: Café Eckstern – which I wrote about affectionately earlier this year 
Cafe Eckstern

Police hippy van

Typical Berlin scene: hipsters have pimped this former police van and made it into something wildly different: the word ‘Polizei’ may not be visible in this picture, but it’s there, dimly surviving just below the windscreen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enough pictures for one post. Next time, Sant Cugat, after a LONG road trip with those traumatised cats.

Hello to Berlin

Back in the first year of this blog one of my first posts was about a visit to Berlin, where my stepson and daughter-in-law live. Since that post they’ve had two boys. Mrs TD and I are just back from a week’s visit there.

Every time I return to Berlin I’m impressed by its atmosphere: strangely calm and peaceful for such a big city.

Carl Legien estateRound the corner from TD jnr’s house in Prenzlauerberg is this Weimar/Bauhaus housing development on Erich Weinertstrasse, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Designed in 1929-30 by Bruno Taut (1880-1938), with the cooperation of Franz Hillinger, head of the Draft Office at GEHAG (a Berlin public housing cooperative), the Carl Legien estate is named after the first chairman of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund [German General Trade Unions Association] founded in 1919.

Here’s what the website Architects/Architecture/Architectuul says about it:

Carl Legien againThe brief of the Berlin senate had called for a high-density residential development with five-storey buildings owing to the high cost of land, the estate being located near the city centre. The site itself was framed by a gas container, small factories and a colony of garden allotments. As a model for his design, Taut chose the functional architecture of the Tusschendijken project built in 1919/20 by Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud, a member of the De Stijl group, in Rotterdam. Taut’s scheme was innovative in that the u-shaped buildings enclosed the courtyards that were open toward the street, separated by a belt of green. The vertically stacked loggias facing the courtyard and the balconies which project beyond the building line into the street result in an interlocking of public and private spaces. As in most housing projects designed by Taut, the planning of green areas was entrusted to Leberecht Migge. Taut and Migge were striving for a consistent design for the entire project. They felt that workers’ quarters should be surrounded by lots of green, much like the villas of the upper class, and the green areas should be laid out in such a way as to provide an “outside living space”. If the design of a similar project designed by Taut, the Hufeisensiedlung was still influenced by the “garden city” concept, the Wohnstadt Legien had a distinctivly urban and integrative expression od contemporary industrialism society.

Taut was associated with the Deutscher Werkbund group of architects, which included Walter Gropius.

Being Jewish, he was obliged to flee Germany with the rise of Hitler and the fascists. He went first to Switzerland, then on to Japan and Turkey, where he died and is buried.

Here’s a detail that illustrates his use of colour and shape; stupidly I didn’t take more pictures of my own, so here’s one from the web:

Attribution: By Florianmk (Website: Clio Berlin Blog) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons page URL https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClio-berlin-carl-legien-siedlung-1-4.jpg

Attribution: By Florianmk (Website: Clio Berlin Blog) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
page URL https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClio-berlin-carl-legien-siedlung-1-4.jpg

 At no. 101 in this street is our favourite café in the area – Eckstern. The proprietor, Riadh Gose, bought the site with his wife when it was a rundown baker’s, and refurbished it (taking six months, he told us) with his designer partner, Stefan.

He offers Eckstern signseveral types of beans for his excellent coffees – our favourite is the organic one. He makes a mean bircher muesli, and provides delicious filled bagels, breakfasts and cakes. A graphic designer, he and Stefan painted all the murals inside, with themes from sites across the city, while his card and flyer, and my photo of his sign outside, are all in the spirit of the Bauhaus architecture all around.

 

 

A parrot called Elvis

Something different today, as I’m on a train en route for Berlin, and didn’t much care for the last book I read – Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter. It’s ok as a light read while travelling, but the plot was a little plodding, I found: a man in early 20C England, well to do, discovers he’s gay, is disgraced and sets off to become a farmer in the dominion of Canada. He ends up at the eponymous pioneer town, guided by a sinister Dane called Troels, whose villainous character becomes ever more that of a pantomime baddie by the end. There’s a touching love affair and a lot of tragic death along the way.

So instead I thought I’d pass part of the journey (we passed into Germany from Holland just now – always seems odd that the border is crossed without any official checks) with an account of the journey. From England we took the Eurostar train from St Pancras to Brussels, where we stayed two days, and loved the city.

Levi's parrotFrom there on by Thalys train to Amsterdam – the same day that a man was tackled on the corresponding train back from Brussels to Paris by four fellow passengers before he could presumably carry out a massacre. Sobering.
After five days in hedonistic, beautiful Amsterdam we settled into the sumptuous café for breakfast at the Centraal station. In the former international waiting room there’s a magnificent polished wood bar, ornate wall coverings and stucco – and a white parrot called Elvis.

The toilets are equally impressive: the wc pan is made of blue and white delft ware, with a pattern of … parrots.

Just as well we had a delicious omelette there: there’s no buffet or restaurant car on this intercity train – a journey of five hours if we stayed on it all the way to Berln. We’ve opted to change at Hanover to pick up the ICE train, about which we’re very excited. Must send pictures to the grandson, who’s very envious. Maybe we’ll be able to get something decent to drink then, even to eat.

I’ve started reading William Gerhardie’s 1936 novel Of Mortal Love, in an attractive Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ve owned for ages but never got round to reading. Maybe that will be the subject of my next post.

Meanwhile we’re just pulling in to a place called Rheine. The squally weather we left behind in Amsterdam has changed: the sky is blue and the sun is shining.

Flat Dutch polders and farmland have been replaced by flat, verdant German pastures. Can’t help imagining the foraging armies that will have marched over the centuries across the parts we’ve been travelling through – especially the blood-soaked fields of Flanders.

Chloe Aridjis, ‘Book of Clouds’

 

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?).

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

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…’

Aridjis, Book of Clouds coverThere 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

 

Berlin: meze, the Wall and reconciliation

 

 

Hasir restaurant

Hasir restaurant (photo: Hasir website)

There’s me, my wife and son – all English; his wife and her parents – Chilean; and her Turkish-German friend.  We’re in Hasir on Oranienburgerstrasse, one of a small chain of excellent Turkish restaurants in Berlin, eating meze.  It was just before Christmas a couple of years ago.

This is Mitte, the heart of former East Berlin.  Before the Wall came down in 1990 this was the dour sector of the city; now it’s more vibrant than the commercial West: the excesses of Potsdamer Platz and the Ku’damm shopping street.

Our dinner party typifies the multicultural diversity of the new Berlin.  Son and daughter-in-law are DJs who make music in a studio in the former Tempelhof Airport.  Up the road from his flat we stop for a coffee in an Italian cafe, where they make a wicked mozzarella and tomato ciabbatta sandwich, and coffee as good as anywhere in Berlin.

He leaves for work, so I continue my dérive alone into four-lane Bernauerstrasse, which used to mark the border between East and West.  This is the History Mile of the Berlin Wall.

 

Berlin wall

Berlin Wall memorial strip

On the left is a graveyard, and a row of rusting girders, vertical remnants of the Wall, now a stark memorial to that divided time.  The former ‘death strip’ between Brunnen and Gartenstrasse has been preserved.  The Berlin Wall Memorial is in the middle of this section.  Sixty meters of the   strip were preserved.  The memorial grounds are beside the Visitors Centre by the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station. Plaques announce how the barrier grew more imposing over the years, the people who died attempting to cross it.  Dogs patrolled the death strip, wires attached to their collars and to the perimeter wire, so they could run freely alongside the wall, but not away from it.

Berlin wall with church

Berlin wall with church

I walked on through the outdoor exhibition and crossed over to the Documentation Centre, which houses a fascinating guide in pictures, film and text to the history of the Wall.   Climb to the viewing platform where you can see over the whole area, picturing how it would have looked.  A whole terrace of apartment blocks was demolished to create the strip.  In 1985 the DDR dynamited the Versoehnung (Reconciliation) Church there to facilitate their expansion plans for the wall; a neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1894, it stood in the death strip in the Soviet sector – since 1961 its congregation had been unable to gain access to it.  A modern chapel has been built on its site.

Destruction of the church

Destruction of the Reconciliation Church (photo: website of the Reconciliation Chapel)

It’s a cruel history which Berlin presents in sombre openness.  This is maybe what makes it such a stimulating city; its diverse, talented inhabitants seem aware that life in Berlin requires something special from anyone who enters it: be inquisitive, keep your eyes open, and you will feel what it is to be fully human – flawed, inclined to be dangerous, capable of being sublime.

Next day the snow has fallen.  Miniature snow-ploughs keep the pavements clear; bigger ones keep the streets passable.  A fire-engine arrives over the road; we watch entranced as a fireman is hoisted to the full extent of the hydraulic arm.  He reaches up and knocks from the eaves of the three-storey building a huge icicle.  Berlin won’t risk pedestrians being flattened by ice-fall.  Nowadays it’s an efficiently caring city.