Urban Alienation

I read the Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis on the basis of a short review by Wendy Lesser in the Sunday Times Book Review (March 15, 2009). I was intrigued by the tale of Aridjis first novel and perhaps by her background as well—a young Mexican American Jewish women with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature who has lived a nomadic life in Holland, Mexico City, Switzerland, New York and now Berlin. In an interview about her life and work Aridjis says she “…to this day I can't imagine staying in the same place for more than two consecutive months without a small break in between.”

The Book of Clouds unfolds the somber, melancholy days of a young woman adrift in Berlin. It is not entirely clear why Tatianna, the narrator, has fled her family in Mexico City where her parents run a Jewish delicatessen, nor does she ever explain why she settled, if only briefly, in Berlin. She lives in solitude, distancing herself from anyone including the city’s grim past. She gets by with low paying jobs, lives in an heated apartment, and spends much of her time wandering the streets of Berlin with their abandoned buildings and graffiti cluttered walls.

“There’s solitude and then there’s loneliness. Monday through Saturday were marked by solitude but on Sundays that solitude hardened into something else.”

Eventually she gets a more stable job transcribing the notes of an aging German-Jewish historian—“this employer of mine who lived with one foot in the past and one in the present, mourning all that could have been instead of going out and seeing all that had become.”

Through the historian she meets a meteorologist who is studying the clouds and finds in their forever shifting patterns a way to interpret the grim reality of his world.

“…the message they [clouds] offer: all structures are collapsible. Just look at their own existence, condemned to rootlessness and fragmentation. Each cloud faces death through loss of form, drifting towards its death, some faster than others, destined to self-destruct before it reaches the other end of the horizon. After living in the times I’ve lived in, you create your own concept of flux. Without sounding too simplistic, meteorology helped me understand--and maybe even cope with recent history, before and after nineteen-eighty nine.”

While Aridjis lived in Berlin for five years, Tatianna in the novel leaves after only half a year. During that time she learns more about the city, its past, and the experience of living a solitary life of displacement and exile. As Aridjis notes in an interview, the Books of Clouds represents one person’s confrontation with urban exile, an experience that is not confined to Berlin, of course.

She learns that the past is always with us and nothing ever vanishes, regardless of how ugly and horrible it was. Tatianna concludes “…nothing can truly be rubbed away or blotted out, and how the more you try to rub something away the darker it becomes.”

As she sets about leaving, she begins to see it more clearly, at least from another viewpoint, now from the past, rather than the somber present. “The simplest of actions, actions you have repeated one hundred, maybe a thousand, times, swell in significance since each time may now be the last…”

At the end she returns to the metaphor of the clouds and concludes with what I take to be the book’s other theme and the reason for its title: “…there was little difference between clouds and shadows and other phenomena given shape by the human imagination.”

At first I was not greatly moved by novel, but it grew on me and I came to look forward to getting back to it. Gradually, I came to better understand what Chloe Aridjis was expressing in her narrative. She said it well and briefly and I learned from it, both about Berlin where I was for about a week recently and the experience she was recounting.