Grasping the dark fears of the imagination

 

FICTION: Book of Clouds By Chloe Aridjis Chatto, 209pp, £11.99 - AND NOW for something completely different: Chloe Aridjis brings a bit of realism, a bit of wonder, a hint of darkness and true originality to this sharp, lyric and beguilingly strange tale of a life in flux.

Perhaps it is autobiographical? Maybe it’s not? It doesn’t matter; Book of Cloudssoars and shimmers through its assured writing, whimsical observations and its sheer ease. It is a story about thinking concerned with questioning life and drifting through it; it’s about knowing that sometimes even trying to take control is a waste of time.

Tatiana, the narrator, is a young woman from Mexico, where her family run a large deli. Exactly why she is living in Berlin supporting herself through a series of half-hearted jobs is not all that clear. But here she is, a 20-something on the run from herself; she can’t sleep, has no friends and is barely able to get through the empty hours. Just about the time we meet her she is aware she is about to lose her job, so she takes control, and quits.

But before she lets us into the non-event that passes for her current existence, she remembers her first visit to Berlin in 1986 when she was a child and the youngest member of her family’s European tour: “. . . we’d worked our way up from Spain, through France, Belgium and the Netherlands – and soon we would be flying home, back across the Atlantic to start the new school year.”

Aridjis, with a little help from Paul Auster as an obvious influence of her narrative tone and style (he also endorses the novel, and why not), imposes herself on the reader through her convincingly switched off narrator. Anyone who has ever had a doubt about the sheer effort of living will recognise themselves in Tatiana, whose sly humour tends to surface from time to time to great effect such as in a sequence dealing with an official order to open her apartment windows four times a day. Our narrator was always that little bit unusual, at the mercy of her imagination.

“I saw Hitler at a time when the Reichstag was little more than a burnt, skeletal silhouette of its former self and the Brandenburg Gate obstructed passage rather than granted it. It was an evening when the moral remains of the city bobbed up to the surface and floated like driftwood before sinking back down to the seabed to further splinter and rot.” It is an impressively seductive opening paragraph, difficult to resist, but then this book is irresistible. When the narrator recreates the experience of clambering on to the U-Bahn with her family during the frenzy of August 11 1986, the surreal mood is quickly established.

The child she was had already become slightly psychologically detached from her parents and siblings. That night in the train she was also at a physical remove. “I noticed that my family was standing at the opposite end of the car . . . though it didn’t really matter since I knew where to get off, and as if in some bizarre Cubist composition, all I saw were corners and fragments of their angled faces, my mother’s lips, my father’s nose, my sister’s hair, and I remember thinking to myself how this amalgam would have been far more attractive, a composite being, cobbled together from random parts of each, rather than the complete six-person package to which I was bound for life.”

Well, any young girl capable of thinking thoughts such as these is a likely candidate for seeing the face of Hitler contained in the aged features of an old woman sitting across from her in that crowded train. “No one in my family believed me, not even my brother Gabriel, the most adventurous-minded of the lot . . . Three years later the Wall fell, And I, in one way or another, grew up.”

Flash forward 16 years and the narrator, having returned to Berlin, is quietly experiencing a breakdown of self. It is brilliantly suggested by Aridjis, who at this early stage of her career, has learnt the value of less is more. Every nuance counts in this virtuoso performance.

You feel yourself transported to Berlin, more importantly you feel as if the narrator is addressing you because she believes you will understand. “Far worse than being nudged awake by sunlight each morning was being kept up by artificial light at night. All I longed for, apart from silence upstairs, was total darkness, but no matter what night of the week, no matter how late the hour, there was always a sliver of light shining in . . . Night would never be mystical again, at least not in the city, and I sometimes had fantasies of flying through town and smashing every lit bulb . . . if only for a few hours, before morning rose and everything revved back to life.”

Chance leads her to a new job with an historian, Doktor Weiss. A remote, reclusive character who could have wandered from the pages of Borges as easily as those of Auster, Weiss has tapes to be transcribed. Glad of the job, Tatiana becomes increasingly curious about her employer. Their exchanges are brilliant, Aridjis knows all about conveying the complex inner life of the mind. Her feel for characterisation is instinctive and true. Book of Clouds is what happens when a gifted writer heeds her masters and also listens to herself.

The narrator speaks about her social life with the air of a defeated warrior. Weiss decides to send Tatiana out to interview some people who are part of his study of life in Berlin. The encounters, including a gentle and doomed non-romance, prove memorable as is this offbeat, engaging and compelling narrative with its wry intelligence and grasp of the darker fears of the imagination.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times