Book of Clouds is a haunting, masterfully wrought debut novel about a young woman adrift in Berlin, where a string of fateful encounters leads to romance, violence, and revelation. Having escaped her overbearing family a continent away, Tatiana settles in Berlin and cultivates solitude while distancing herself from the city’s past. Yet the phantoms of Berlinseeping in through the floorboards of her apartment, lingering in the abandoned subterraneaare more alive to her than the people she passes on her daily walks. When she takes a job transcribing notes for the reclusive historian Doktor Weiss, her life in Berlin becomes more complexand more perilous. Through Weiss, she meets Jonas, a meteorologist who, as a child in the GDR, took solace in the sky’s constant shape-shifting, an antidote to his grim and unyielding reality. As their three paths intersect and merge, the contours of all their worlds change, culminating in an act of violence that will leave none of them untouched. Unfolding with the strange, charged logic of a dream, Book of Clouds is a profound portrait of a city forever in flux, and of the myths we cling to in order to give shape to our lives.
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BOOK OF CLOUDS
By Chloe Aridjis
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One AUGUST 11, 1986 BERLIN
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.
Berlin was the last stop on our 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. My two brothers, still thrumming with energy, lamented that we had to leave. In every town and city they'd wandered off into the night and not returned until breakfast, answering in cranky monosyllables, between sips of coffee, whenever anyone commented on the amount of money being wasted on hotel rooms. My two sisters, on the other hand, weighed down by stories and souvenirs, were desperate to unload, and my parents too felt weary and ready for home. Not to mention that we'd used up 60 percent of the money we'd just inherited from my grandfather, and the remaining 40 had allegedly been set aside for our ever-expanding deli.
On our final evening, after an early dinner, our parents announced they were taking us to a demonstration against the Berlin Wall to protest twenty-five years of this "icon of the Cold War." Wherever you went in Berlin, sooner or later you would run into it, even on the day we visited Hansa Studios where Nick Cave and Depeche Mode used to record, or the secondhand shop that sold clothes by the kilo. No matter where you went-east, west, north, south-before long you hit against the intractable curtain of cement and were able to go no further. That was our impression, anyway, so we figured that we too might as well protest against this seemingly endless structure that limited even our movement, though we were just seven tourists visiting the city for the first time.
When we arrived at the demonstration there were already thousands of people gathered on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate, young couples, old couples, scampering children, punks with dogs, Goths, women with buzz cuts, men in blue overalls-a cross section, looking back, of what West Berlin had been in those days. Most people remained standing but there were also large groups spread out on the pavement, singing and chanting and passing around bottles of beer. Two nights before, we'd heard, a human chain had started to form along the Wall with an aim to cover all 155 kilometers.
On the east side, meanwhile, men in grey uniforms and steel helmets were marching up and down Karl-Marx-Allee. I envisioned dramatic clashes between metal and flesh, order and chaos, homogeny and diversity, but I knew that in real life these clashes were far more abstract. My parents had wanted to take us across the border to show us "a true portrait of Communism" but there had been a mysterious problem with our visas so we'd stayed in the West all week, left to imagine as best we could what life was like on the other side, ever more intrigued by notions of "this side" and "beyond."
People continued to arrive. The singing and chanting grew louder and I could hardly hear when anyone in my family leaned over to say something, as though on that night our language had been put on hold and German was the only means of communication. But there were other ways of having a voice, and before long we had joined the lengthy chain following the Wall and I found myself clasping the hand of a man with a ponytail and a black leather jacket until one of my brothers insisted on changing places with me. I tried to imagine the thousands of people across West Berlin to whom we would be connected through this gesture of solidarity but the thought was dizzying so I focused instead on the punks playing nearby with their dogs, as they threw what looked like battered tennis shoes, which the dogs would race to retrieve. The punks would then throw the bait in another direction, every now and then missing and hitting someone on the head or shoulder, the sight of which triggered boisterous rounds of laughter.
Twilight came on. Some of the organizers walked through the crowd passing out white candles. A number of people declined and flicked on their lighters instead. Against the sea of lights the Reichstag looked even gloomier and more forsaken and the Brandenburg Gate, with its goddess of Victory and twelve Doric columns, doubly silenced by dusk. Not far from us an old punk with a torch jumped onto the Wall and screamed some words into the East, rabid words, though we couldn't understand what he was saying. On the other side, my mother told us, invisible eyes would be following his every movement. There didn't seem to be anyone in the watchtowers across the way yet we imagined men in round caps with cat slit eyes surveying the whole spectacle, ready to pounce should any of us trespass one inch into their territory.
We stayed at the demonstration until the candles burned down and the fuel in the lighters ran out and all the voices grew hoarse, until our watches read midnight and people gathered their things and began to leave. We followed our parents down the street, then down many more, in the direction that everyone seemed to be heading. There was no chance of finding a taxi, we would have to take the U-Bahn, so along with hordes of others we descended into Gleisdreieck station like a screaming eight-hundred-headed monster.
The frenzied crowds made it impossible to get within arm's reach of the ticket machines so when the next train pulled into the station we jumped on without having paid. It was one of those nights, we sensed, when anything was permitted. Hundreds of people were crammed into the carriage, it was impossible to even turn around, and with the heat my sweater began to feel like a straightjacket but there was barely enough room to remove it. After tugging on the zipper and successfully extracting one arm I noticed that my family was standing at the opposite end of the car; swept up in the confusion, we must have boarded through different doors and now dozens of bodies were between us, 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 complex six-person package to which I was bound for life.
The train continued its journey and I began to examine the passengers sitting and standing nearby. There was general mirth in the carriage and I began to feel as if I was in some kind of aviary, though one populated with less exotic species than those we had at home. Groups of large black and grey birds with blond tufts laughed and told jokes while scruffy brown birds with ruffled feathers waved bottles of beer. Solemn birds read the evening paper, others squawked over crossword puzzles and the smallest birds, of which there were only a few, emitted the occasional chirp, as if aware of the hierarchy but uncertain how to participate. And then I noticed one bird, a bird with unusual plumage, which, unlike the others, didn't seem to want to draw attention to itself. Sitting directly in front of me was a very old woman, nearly a century old I would say, wearing a scarf that framed a wide forehead, which peered out like an angry planet. She had dark, deep-set eyes and a square, jowly face that was remarkably masculine. Stiff and erect, the old woman sat in her seat clutching her purse and stared straight ahead.
The jowly face, the sweeping forehead, the deep-set furnacy eyes, everything seemed horribly familiar and I felt as if I had seen this face before, but in black and white. Since I was standing directly in front of her I had the perfect perspective to really study it, and the more I stared the more certain I was ... Yes, that it was Hitler, Hitler as an old woman, riding westwards. This is Hitler, I said to myself, there is no doubt that this is Hitler. The old woman had the same-shaped face, the same black eyes and high forehead, and, now that I looked again, even a shadowy square area where the mustache would have been. I stared and then I stared some more, petrified, horrified, amazed by what I saw. All of a sudden the train jerked around a curve. The woman, startled out of her rigid position and thrown back into the present, finally looked up and around and it was then that she caught me staring. I couldn't believe it: I was making eye contact with Hitler. Hitler was making eye contact with me. At least for a few seconds. The woman frowned and turned away, then back to me and smiled faintly, her lips barely moving, probably to ingratiate herself since my staring must have unnerved her.
My heart pounded. The sight in front of me, added to the stifling heat in the carriage, might have been enough to give anyone a heart attack, even me, at age fourteen, yet a heart attack at age fourteen was still more probable than seeing Hitler on the U-Bahn disguised as an old woman. How could it be, I wondered, that forty years after the war I found myself face-to-face with the devil himself, the devil whose very name cast a shadow on nearly every landscape of my young life? I waved to my brother Gabriel, who happened to glance my way, and made an urgent sign for him to join me even if he had to bulldoze his way through the crowd, but he took one glance at all the large Germans standing between us and shrugged. I then pointed at my parents, motioning to him to get their attention, but the fool just shrugged a second time and turned away. My mother, nose deep in a guidebook, was a lost cause, as was my father, busy trying to decipher the signs on the walls of the train. My two sisters were just as useless, huddled together in a conference of whispers, oblivious to everything but each other, and I couldn't even see my other brother, who was eclipsed by at least ten bodies.
My entire family stayed rooted like metal poles on the U-Bahn while I stood one foot away from Hitler with not a witness in sight. To my great surprise, not a single person seemed to notice the old woman in the head scarf. All these birds were simply too caught up in their feather ruffling and gregarious squawking to pay much attention to their fellow passengers, especially to those seated below eye level, on a different perch. But how could no one else notice the forehead and the eyes and the shaded patch between nose and mouth, when the combination of these features seemed so glaringly, so obscenely, real and factual and present?
We plowed deeper into the West. The train stopped at Wittenbergplatz and then, a few minutes later, at Zoologischer Garten. Dozens of people stepped out, freeing up the space considerably but my family stayed where they were. Now that the crowd had thinned, although there were still quite a few people between us, I noticed strapping men posted at each of the four doors of the carriage, four buzzards in their sixties or seventies, all wearing the same bulky grey coat. There was no need for these coats in August, coats cut from a cloth so thick it barely dented, and I couldn't help wondering whether they were hiding weapons beneath them.
Their eyes were riveted on the old lady. Every now and then one of them would turn to study the passengers around her, monitoring their movements with narrowed eyes, but most of the time they just watched her. These are former SS men, it then occurred to me, here to guard the incognito hag, aging secret agents who survived the war and have for the past forty years lived in hiding with their Führer. The old woman raised an arm to rearrange her scarf. Two guards tensed their shoulders, mistaking the gesture, fleetingly, for a command. I couldn't bear it any longer and again tried to wave my parents over, but my mother was glued to her guidebook, my father to the signs on the train, my sisters to their gossip and my brothers to who knows what.
At Sophie-Charlotte-Platz the old woman rose from her seat and brushed past me, her shoulder nudging mine a little harder than necessary. I moved aside. Within seconds all four men left their stations by the doors and closed in to form a tight circle around her. The train came to a halt. Two of the buzzards stepped out, then the old lady, followed by the other two. The grey gang had disembarked. The doors closed and the train, its load considerably lightened, continued on its way.
No one in my family believed me, not even my brother Gabriel, the most adventurous-minded of the lot. They told me it was absurd: Hitler shot himself in his bunker in 1945. It was common knowledge. His skull had been found by the Soviets and was on display in a museum in Moscow. There was more than enough proof. End of story.
Three years later, the Wall fell. And I, in one way or another, grew up.
The new neighborhood was happily free of references, banal or nostalgic, and the apartment satisfied all the usual criteria -fifteen minutes from a park, ten from a landmark, five from a bakery-and the rest was of little consequence. I would adjust. Since returning to Berlin in 2002 I had already lived in Charlottenburg, Kreuzberg and Mitte and now the time had come, perhaps belatedly given how fast things were changing, to try Prenzlauer Berg. After five years I still had the impulse, every ten to twelve months, to find a new home. 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, that with each move something was being renewed.
My latest dwelling was blessed with ceilings twice my height, wooden floors, double windows with brass knobs and an aluminum Soviet bathtub from the eighties that still had the factory label attached to the side. All in all, it was a good deal for three hundred euros a month and no doubt a step up from my last home on a sleepless junction in Kreuzberg. Like many old houses, this one had a front section, where I lived, and at the back an interior courtyard, the Hof, enclosed on all three sides by more apartments. Deprived of a street view, the main compensation for these homes at the rear was silence and little balconies. Some families seemed especially proud of their flower arrangements, miniature gardens jutting out of the concrete; for those not given to small-scale floriculture, this bonus section of suspended space was used to cram in any surplus object that didn't fit inside, from plastic tables to desk chairs to bicycles to laundry racks. I could look into these balconies from my kitchen window, which commanded a generous view of the Hof, although I preferred to focus on the old oak that rose in the middle, its thick trunk and changing leaves kindly blocking out the row of garish recycling bins behind.
On the afternoon of the storm, succumbing to the usual restlessness born of too much time between four walls, I slipped on a jacket and double locked the door. Out on the street a mild breeze stirred the smaller branches of the trees but left the larger ones at rest. It was late August and the air was warm, tending towards moist. As I stood outside my building deciding in which direction to walk I noticed a wrinkled face peering at me from behind the lace curtain of a ground-floor window. Two other faces, equally impassive, were stationed right behind. These were my neighbors from below, three ancient women, most likely widows from the war, and so far they were the only neighbors I'd seen. We had yet to exchange a word but I felt certain that my arrival had furnished them with material for discussion during their empty, loveless hours.
As for my own empty, loveless hours, how I spent them varied from day to day, week to week. The money trickling in from home helped supplement what little savings remained from my last employment, as assistant to the assistant editor of a second-rate psychology journal. After six months I no longer wanted to know about the fickle tides of the human brain, far too many to count, nor how to treat the pathologies that rattle every one of us. As a matter of pride, I quit one day before they were planning to annul my flimsy contract. I felt dizzied by the odor of mothballs given off by Herr Schutz, my employer, as he hovered over me while I cleared out my desk drawers and erased all personal files from the computer. I stuffed everything into an Aldi shopping bag while he hung around in a cloud of camphor, checking that I wasn't taking anything that wasn't mine. (Continues...)
Excerpted from BOOK OF CLOUDS by Chloe Aridjis Copyright © 2009 by Chloe Aridjis. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Unlike anything I've read before. Hard to describe, though.
Well observed, paced, and structured. It has all the ingredients for a good novel: but it's trite, and the reason for its triviality is a strange lacuna in the author's imagination of her main character. The Mexican woman who wanders around Berlin, taking pleasure in riding the S-Bahn, in long walks, and in the weather, is a habitually solitary person. She isn't often lonely, but even after five years in Berlin she has only three or four acquaintances, including a homeless woman who begs on a train platform -- and she only talks to that person once. The lacuna is not the character's solitary life, which is expertly observed. The absence I have in mind springs from two two higher-level absences:First, there's a lack of anxiety on the character's part that she is so isolated, so without interests. She knows, in the novel, that she has no friends and often does nothing for weeks or months at a time, but she is not anxious about it: it's almost as if she is on a strong course of antidepressants, so that her condition doesn't affect her. Second, there's a lack of interest on Aridjis's part that her character is to isolated and without interests. She is clearly occasionally delusional, but that does not seem to concern Aridjis.It is strange and ultimately disengaging to read about a character who does not care to know more about herself, described by a novelist who doesn't seem to notice that there might be more to see.At the beginning of the book, the character imagines seeing an aging Hitler (as a woman!) on a train, and throughout the novel she remains convinced of what she thinks she's seen. At the end of the book, she hallucinates a dense fog that loosens locks throughout Berlin and causes posters to slip down from the walls. Because the character never doubts either event, the novel creates an opening: I expected Aridjis to develop a story about her mildly, occasionally delusional protagonist, and I thought the novel would probably develop into a story about her decline. But it's as if Aridjis is herself unaware of the potentially deeper psychology of her own character. In the course of the novel, the character experiences several other unusual events, and she is uncertain about a couple of things, but nothing comes of them. I had no clear sense that Aridjis meant anything by these events, other than the passing whimsy that life is sometimes odd. But what's really odd is that Aridjis doesn't experience her own character's inner life as anything except mildly surrealist, mildly entertaining, harmless and ultimately wholly ordinary. That's why in the end I am more concerned about Aridjis than her novel.
I previously read her second novel "Asunder" and loved her beautiful writing style. This book is also extremely well written. Her observations are often witty and her description of Berlin is excellent.
I recently came across this novel in my local bookshop and was really impressed. The description on the back doesn't quite capture its kaleidoscopic breadth and the strange illusoriness of its chapters... There are so many layers, I don't think I grasped them all, but I certainly read closely enough to see that this is a rather exceptional debut, written with a quiet, wise and refined voice.