Chloe Aridjis's novel opens with a haunting vignette. The narrator, Tatiana, a young Mexican woman living in contemporary Berlin, describes the time she saw Hitler riding the U-Bahn. He was, she recalls, disguised as an old lady, an "incognito hag" travelling the city with a coterie of plain clothes guards. Her story, with its air of absurdity and quiet menace, seems deliberately to echo the moment in WG Sebald's great novel Vertigo, when the peripatetic protagonist, on a bus in central Europe, encounters a pair of identical twins who bear an uncanny resemblance to Franz Kafka.
Like Sebald's elliptical work, Book of Clouds blurs the line between fact and fiction. Aridjis lived in the German capital for five years, and her precise descriptions of the city have the ring of truth ("The little alley behind Hackescher Markt where the trams would nap"; "The ice-cream place on Stargarder Straße, where there was always a line, even in winter"). But Tatiana's Berlin also has a numinous aspect; it is a place of ghosts and doppelgangers, where mystery lurks on every street corner.
She begins the novel in a funk, unemployed and alone in her adopted city, but eventually finds work transcribing the monologues of a reclusive history professor, who is investigating the "phenomenology of space" in Cold War-era Germany. Through him she meets Jonas, a meteorologist with a passion for clouds, and the shifting relationships between the three characters form the core of the narrative.
But Aridjis is less interested in the mechanics of plot than in conjuring mood and atmosphere, and it is Berlin itself that takes centre stage; by turns homely and menacing, the city is a vast repository of painful memories and "magical secrets" that remain finally out of reach.
A strange and beguiling debut.