Book of Clouds

Chloe Aridjis

First Sentence: 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.

This book opens with a brief prologue set in 1986 when Tatiana, the narrator, is on holidays with her family in Berlin. She is only a teenager at the time and while on the U-Bahn she thinks she sees Hitler dressed in old woman’s clothes. Clearly this cannot be, but she is pretty adamant, and it is an image that stays with her long after she returns home to Mexico. This memory may even be what compels Tatiana to move to Berlin when she is older and finished college. It is in modern-day Berlin that this novel is primarily set and like the incident on the train, there are a lot of events that take place where the reader is left uncertain as to whether or not they are actually real. Tatiana herself is a solitary person and even considered moving to a forest before settling on Berlin. The forest was appealing as there would be:

[…] far fewer faces and voices, only the imperceptible cries of ants, the footsteps of spiders and the sound of trees growing.

At the same time however she fears what this type of extreme isolation might do to her mental stability:

[…] the madness that remote places cultivate is not to be taken lightly and I’ve always found something particularly disquieting in madness left to quietly ferment on its own; the social functions required of us help us maintain, at the very least, an illusion of normality[…]

For this reason she picks Berlin over the forest and begins working for a Doktor Weiss, transcribing his notes for him and eventually conducting interviews on his behalf. One of these interviewees is ‘ant illustrator turned meteorologist’ Jonas, a man with a passion for clouds who she becomes friendly with. These three people, Doktor Weiss, Tatiana, and Jonas, will have a profound impact on each other as their lives intersect in different ways. Ultimately this is a poetic, understated, meditative tale about Tatiana, a lonely young Mexican girl who is finding her way in a strange city, and is definitely worth a look.

* * * *

Last Sentence: Before reaching cruising altitude the plane sliced through a thick layer of cloud and for a few seconds there was nothing but white outside the window and I couldn’t help feeling, as we cut through the ephemeral landscape slowly thinning and dispersing and branching out in a thousand unmappable directions, that this moment had been prepared especially for me, some kind of aerial requiem held in honor of the city I was leaving behind, and in the end, I remember thinking a few minutes later as the Lufthansa stewardess rattled down the aisle with her drinks cart, there was little difference between clouds and shadows and other phenomena given shape by the human imagination.

Last Sentence explained: In Doktor Weiss Tatiana has found a kindred soul. She can relate to his aloofness as something “bred by many unpeopled hours”, and she warms to him instantly. When Jonas and Doktor Weiss finally meet for the first time, a meeting Jonas is particularly keen on, she feels she needs to be there as they are the only two people she knows in the city. This meeting turns out to be a disaster however, as afterwards, when they are leaving Jonas’ apartment, both Tatiana and Doktor Weiss are mugged. An immense fog has descended on the entire city and with zero visibility they have no hope of fending off their attackers. Doktor Weiss ends up in hospital and Tatiana takes this event as her cue to leave Berlin for good.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many dubious events in this book, something foreshadowed by the Hitler prologue, and we are left to wonder whether or not Tatiana is losing her grip on reality: there is the simpleton she always sees at the train station, and who she even interviews for Doktor Weiss, but all she does is spout gibberish and no one else seems to have noticed her. There is also the fact that she constantly says she is afraid of “the psychosis that remote places inspire”, even though she seeks out situations where she will be alone, like the time she went to the dark basement of the Gestapo bowling alley or the time her and Jonas got separated at the Holocaust memorial. She, like Jonas, is also a member of the Dark Skies Association, an organisation trying to eliminate streetlights due to the unnecessary light pollution they cause. It is like she fears the dark but seeks it out at the same time. Another time she swears she sees Doktor Weiss dressed in women’s clothes on a tram (sound familiar?) and when she does finally confront him, his response only adds to our uncertainty. Most tellingly of all however is at the very end of the book when she is at the airport saying her goodbyes to Jonas (Doktor Weiss is still in the hospital). She is again speaking of the night of the mugging, and the terrific fog that made it impossible to even see in front of her, but Jonas insists he never saw the fog. In fact, even though Tatiana has led us to believe it was front page news the day afterwards, Jonas says he has never seen it reported anywhere. He has never even spoken to anyone else who has seen it.

Jonas himself is a bit of an enigma. Ever since he was a child he has loved clouds. He used to imagine he was a cloud gardener and all the clouds in the sky were kept under his control and even now, as an adult, he uses the clouds as a way to escape reality. After Tatiana and himself have slept together he tells her of the time he saw the rare phenomenon known as the Brocken Specter. He was climbing a mountain and when he reached the summit he looked down and saw what is essentially his own shadow magnified and projected onto the mist by the sun. It is a rare occurrence and he feels blessed to have seen it. He goes on to say that:

Phantoms are created just as often by the shifting angle of the sun as they are by the human brain.

In this book whether it is sun, brain, or clouds creating the phantoms in Berlin, it is up to us to decide.


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