12/30/2011 01:40 pm ET Updated Feb 29, 2012

Review: Chloe Aridjis's Experimental Novel of Berlin: Hitler, the German Past, and the Invisible Memories of a World City

The ice-age of no dialogue between minds, hearts and spirits has begun. The only escape route leads downwards, into dreams, for some into the graveyard. -- Playwright Heiner Müller, accepting the Kleist Prize in 1990, quoted in Berlin And Its Culture: A Historical Portrait, by Ronald Taylor (Yale University Press, 1997)

Few cities have as many layers of history reflected in their streets, recreational places, monuments, plazas, shopping areas, parks, museums, and other public spaces as Berlin. Key arena for the unfolding of the Reformation, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Prussian nationalism, industrialism, Weimar modernism, Nazism, and finally the East-West split between the communist and capitalist zones that ended as recently as 1989, Berlin contains every kind of contradiction for the tourist to hit on, as much as for the historian. For every impulse, there is an antidote to be found.

What can be the role of the flâneur in a city as visibly constructed by its altering historical statuses? If history is neither denied nor repressed, can there be serendipitous discovery? Is this proposition, first of all, true? Can a city escape its past(s) to reemerge as a new entity, to conform with the demands of new eras in socioeconomic arrangements? The present world crisis was set off, arguably, by the fall of the Berlin Wall, creating a chaos that has yet to find a resting point. A city supposedly merged, to become whole again, while the globe is still reeling from the wars and genocides that have ensued in its wake, as the global balance-of-power has gone off-kilter.

Chloe Aridjis is the daughter of a famous Mexican diplomat and writer, and was born in New York but grew up in Mexico City and the Netherlands. In Book of Clouds (Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic), she has written a deceptively simple novel, which undertakes the almost impossible task of merging the binaries to make the project of history invisible again, to remove it again to the barriers of marginality and haze (this is not necessarily the project of her protagonist Tatiana's mentor, Weiss, however, as we shall soon see).

For Aridjis, this seems to be the only way we can make historical meaning central again: by admitting its mystical, unknowable, genetic aspects, not treating it as a matter of complete(d) knowledge.

The novel's first-person narrator, Tatiana, has settled in contemporary Berlin for five years, having left behind her observant Jewish family, who keep a kosher deli in Mexico. She has mastered enough German to find a job as transcriber for the aged, eminent historian Friedrich Weiss, an expert in the various mythologies Berlin has chosen to embody over time.

Tatiana exemplifies the early twenty-first century "cool" feminist, intellectual to the core, unable and unwilling to fall for any of the traditional verities of love, family, and intimacy. Weiss may be old, but Tatiana is older than her years. Berlin for her is a place of self-chosen exile, the city where dreams have gone to become not necessarily nightmares, but wispy illusions of diligence and rectitude she must forever keep chasing.

We have here the concept of the nineteenth-century dandyish flânuer, as first conceptualized by Baudelaire--bourgeois, idle, wealthy--reversed in each of its key elements. The city seems as much in search of Tatiana--to reveal its naked orientation to multiple layers of history--as the other way around. Weiss and Tatiana's project, in one respect, is really one and the same: to pin down the history of the city before it emerges into full-blown chaos.

The most fruitful field for all of nineteenth and twentieth-century literature has been the modern city's anomalous visibilities in competition with the individual's search for wholeness (which gives rise to an intense realism of the object). Tatiana knows, with the weight of past literary endeavor, it is impossible to find the true Berlin, but try she must.

The short novel opens with one of the most disorienting scenes in recent fiction: it is 1986, and Tatiana is on a brief earlier visit to Berlin, along with her parents and siblings. On the U-Bahn, packed with anti-Wall demonstrators, she is sure she sees Hitler--dressed as a woman, ancient yet virile, with his unmistakable features. Much later, when she will relate this to Weiss, they will figure his age then to have been ninety-seven--if, in fact, she saw Hitler, on the probability of which Weiss remains mute. Tatiana tries to call her family's attention to Hitler, and the 'gray buzzards"--SS men carefully guarding the Fuhrer--but is unable to do so in the crowd; as always, the sensitive agonist is condemned to loneliness.

Many years later Tatiana is back in Berlin, yearning to be part of the culture of the city, yet too diffident and detached to fall for its seductions. The tall television tower becomes her frame of reference in terms of the spatial coordinates; she lives very near it. One day she finds a Xolo outside a café, apparently stray, and longs to own it, but by the time she makes up her mind, the dog is gone. The dog turns out to belong to Professor Weiss. Does he still publish? There are tons of journals with articles by him, but they seem to cease in the seventies. Then why does he keep dictating so many lectures and notes, why does he still keep writing?

Noting her intelligence, Weiss soon gives her greater responsibilities: he starts sending her on interviews, related to what different residents remember about their experience of Berlin at discrete points in history.

The first interview, with Jonas Krantz, a freelance meteorologist who lives in a rundown part of the city, dominated by newfangled Nazis, goes really well, and Tatiana is sent on other interviews. Once she forgets to bring Weiss's questions to an important bureaucrat. Another time she picks her own interview subject, the "Simpleton"--an innocent-looking blonde woman who perpetually stands with a smile at a certain corner on Alexanderplatz; but the Simpleton turns out to speak in a demonic gibberish, which Tatiana, however, faithfully transcribes. Weiss is disappointed; this is not the kind of remembrance he is after.

Tatiana briefly gives in to Jonas's romantic overtures, and on their first date, to a party which promises underground pleasures, occurs the second key mystical event in Tatiana's Berlin experience.

Some of the partiers at the abandoned old post office in Mitte where Tatiana and Jonas are drinking and dancing decide to pay a short visit to an underground bowling alley, used by either the Gestapo or the (East German) Stasi, where the bowling scores still remain intact in chalk. Jonas decides not to go, but Tatiana does, experiencing powerful emotions as she imagines the victors of Berlins of the past--whatever secret police it really was--reveling in the underground.

As the group starts leaving, she has the unvanquishable impulse to erase the chalk scores. While she attempts to do so, she is left behind by the group, unable to find her way back to them in the complete darkness. Within minutes she is hallucinating about gray figures arriving to put an end to her life, although it only turns out to be the group leader who has noticed her absence. (For a contrast, think of the underground scene in Fellini's Roma, where the murals painted on the walls in some ancient time involuntarily get erased, through the sheer fact of exposure to sunlight after eons of darkness.)

In this memorable scene in the middle of the book, just as in the Hitler one at the beginning, Aridjis shows how the present is an illusion that can escape in a minute, if we don't watch out.

Darkness closes in within a brief space of time, if we give in to the urge to erase, to eradicate, which follows from the urge to explore. (Is Weiss the wise one then, for removing all apparent traces of emotion from his archival research? Is dispassionate historical analysis, rigorous but well after the fact and in a sense cognizant of its ultimate impotence, the best we can hope for?)

Following this nightmarish experience, Weiss tells Tatiana, "Buildings retain their energy." Weiss wants to send her there again, perhaps to take pictures, but Tatiana says she'll never go back there, that she "will try to avoid underground spaces as much as possible."

But Weiss responds that "Spaces above harbor a similar energy. It's not just spaces below.... A building's memory resides just as much in its upper space as in its lower ones."

Tatiana tells him about inscrutable noises she hears from the apartment above hers, upon which Weiss instructs her, "You should go investigate. Go upstairs and see what you find." Weiss is always the dispassionate investigator, whereas Tatiana is haunted by anxiety about what she will find, if she looks close enough.

A point to think about here is that the first precondition of exile, internal or external, is the ability to overcome anxiety, that generalized dread so typical of the intelligent person inhabiting the modern city, by integrating its elements as the core of one's being. Weiss, in many ways, is the true exile, Tatiana only a faint approximation to his paradigmatic condition. The novel revolves around this oscillation.

It is near this time that on the train, at night, Tatiana sees an old man in a red cape, a transvestite, who she feels certain must be Weiss. So the old historian leads a scandalous double life after all? She wants badly to tap him on the shoulder to confirm her suspicion, but is unable to do so.

Is this Weiss's underground life? Can the historian (the artist or intellectual in general) lead this kind of second life, vulnerable to critique by traditional moralizers--as long as it doesn't interfere with his dispassionate researches aboveground, so to speak?

But according to Weiss's theories, the different realms are inseparable, they infect each other. Who is the real man? Where is the real city? At what disconcerting points do they meet (and clash) and can the artist be present at those illuminating moments of merger? Is the merger always a separation (like the child issuing from the womb, permanently altering the original condition, yet inescapably rooted in it)?

The final mystical moment of the book occurs at the end when Weiss and Tatiana take up Jonas on his invitation for them to visit his apartment, to let Weiss talk to him more about his memories of the Wall as he experienced it as a child.

Following the visit, Jonas offers to walk them back to the main street, but Weiss is insistent on doing without Jonas's help, since he is supposed to know Berlin's streets and alleys like the back of his hand (he hasn't been to this neighborhood, Marzahn, in many years, in reality). They quickly get lost, and two muggers assail the lost explorer-historians. Weiss is thrown to the ground and badly injured.

One of the assailants seizes "the Mexican with the warm crotch," perhaps to rape her, when a blinding fog descends, so thick that the whole city is unable to see anything, and our would-be killers and rapists are disabled. Tatiana walks back toward the city, where people are groping in blindness, to get the help of the police. Later, after visiting Weiss in the hospital, it is not clear whether the assailants had been in turn mobbed by more ferocious Nazis. Had there even been clouds in the first place, or was it Tatiana's imagination? Aridjis more or less ends on this intriguing note.

What is the nature of the deep fog that prevents true consummations--both sexual/orgiastic/fulfilling, and their opposite, murderous/rapist/erasive--from taking place in the city? Or is it that we need certain degrees of fog, overwhelming at times, simply to function in any great modern city with its various burdens of history?

The reader will answer for herself the various meanings in Book of Clouds of the aboveground/underground relations, the meaning of the clouds themselves, the nature of the intelligent soul as reflected in the Tatiana/Weiss dichotomy, but it is clear that this is only a preliminary investigation, for the twenty-first century (twenty-two years removed now from the declared "end of history") of the city as live organism, in touch with all its various pasts regardless of developers' and builders' intentions to erase whatever they find objectionable, the cracks and fissures both terrifying and tranquilizing for the artist to contemplate.

Oh, and by the way, Tatiana returns to Mexico (to a presumably duller life), having had her fill of Berlin after the mugging experience. Her "papers" may always have been in order, but papers alone don't determine how long a person chooses to make a city her own.

The fog cannot necessarily envelop individualist chaos. There is, perhaps, something more durable than the domineering modernist city, after all--though we don't yet know what it is.

This review appears in the current issue of North Dakota Quarterly.

Anis Shivani has just finished a novel, Karachi Raj. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (May 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).