Book of Clouds, By Chloe Aridjis

Unsettled weather in a troubled city
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The Independent Culture

Now in her late twenties, Tatiana has fled her noisy, competitive family, who run a successful Jewish deli in Mexico City, to seek silence and solitude in Berlin. For five years, she has drifted through dead-end jobs and dead-end love-affairs, nights of clubbing and days of wandering though the haunted streets of the city she calls the "omphalos of evil". One day, at a café in fashionable Prenzlauer Berg, she comes across a Xoloitzcuintle – the black, hairless Mexican dog the Aztecs believed guided spirits through the underworld – which seems to recognise her as one of its own. Soon she is working for a reclusive historian, the enigmatic Doktor Weiss. With Walter Benjamin and Joseph Roth as his guides, Weiss attempts to unravel a topography not just of terror but of abandonment, loss and the erasure of memory.

One day he shows Tatiana drawings of the Berlin Wall, made by children on the eastern side, and asks her to interview one of their creators. Now in his thirties, Jonas is a meteorologist, a profession he chose the better to cope with his upbringing in the GDR. From his flat on the 18th floor of a tower block, he can observe the movements of the clouds, noting that "all structures are collapsible". The book is punctuated by extreme weather events, strange shifts in barometric pressure, "the fogs of time and all the obfuscation that surrounds them". Together, Jonas and Tatiana descend into the literal underworld, exploring the "ghost stations" – the eerily empty U-Bahn stations under East Berlin – and a subterranean bowling alley once used by Gestapo – or Stasi? – officers.

Aridjis is an insightful observer of post-reunification Berlin, its restless nightlife, its transient flea-markets, its shifting landscape of neglect and gentrification, the ghosts of its past – and the chilling rise of the far right. Her lyrical, restrained prose conjures a dream-like atmosphere that borders on magical realism. This haunting debut is a significant and memorable addition to the literature of a troubling city.

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