Most people who travel by plane can remember the first time they broke through the clouds and gazed down on that undulant white blanket, so cleanly defined in the unfiltered sunlight. This is also the vantage from which almost all contemporary fiction is written: high above action that unfolds lucidly and deliberately for the reader. But as its title suggests, Chloe Aridjis' debut novel, "Book of Clouds," holds us in the mist, just below the point at which we can orient ourselves. Although set in post-wall Berlin, the mood is less German than Japanese: restrained, melancholy and subacid, spiked with a dreamlike urban surrealism.
Tatiana is a Jewish Mexican expatriate in her late 20s whose first year in Berlin -- "the omphalos of evil, the place where World War II had ended and, according to some, where World War III would begin" -- was an award from the Goethe Institute in Mexico City for having the highest score on its nationwide German language exam. An additional four years have passed and Tatiana remains in the city, subsisting on temp jobs, a monthly money order from her father and a vague air of expectation.
None of her brief friendships or romances have lasted and, although curious and observant, she remains unattached, even to places. She rarely phones home. About once a year, she sheds her apartment for a new one: "Spaces became too familiar, too elastic, too accommodating. Boredom and exasperation would set in. And though of course nothing really changed from one roof to another, I liked to harbor the illusion that small variations occurred within me, that with each move something was being renewed."
However alienated from others, Tatiana is deeply inhabited by her author, who moves calmly from one precinct to another in Tatiana's unusual mind. We fall on each detail with a curiosity like Tatiana's, avidly following our heroine even while she absorbs recorded announcements on the U-Bahn or sweeps her apartment floor after an August thunderstorm.
Tatiana's emotional stasis is broken by a new job transcribing tapes for an elderly historian, Doktor Friedrich Weiss, at his home in Savignyplatz. Although Weiss barely makes eye contact with Tatiana and always uses the formal "sie" when addressing her, she finds the work oddly intimate and relishes Weiss' mesmerizing voice on the tapes and her quiet hours in his study. His interest in the phenomenology of space, particularly in Berlin, taps into a subterranean current of anxiety in Tatiana. "Spaces cling to their pasts," Weiss says:
"[A]nd sometimes the present finds a way of accommodating this past and sometimes it doesn't. At best, a peaceful coexistence is struck up between temporal planes but most of the time it is a constant struggle for dominion. Objects would also form part of the inquiry, Weiss added, the reverberation of objects, the resonance of things lost banished or displaced."
Eventually Weiss asks Tatiana to conduct some interviews for his book and in this way she meets a meteorologist named Jonas Krantz, from the former German Democratic Republic (East Berlin), whose fascination with clouds -- with vulnerability, mutability, impermanence -- gives this novel its symbolic framework.
In fact, two ideas run counter to each other throughout "Book of Clouds": what is lost and, as Weiss reflects above, what lingers. This adds a murky indefiniteness to the novel that feels uncomfortably like real life -- not just the visual palimpsest of the new layered on the old that one encounters in any European city, but the emotional pull forward and backward in time, the sense of being spread thinly over a span of years far longer than our lifetimes and of grappling with the loves and sufferings of the dead. When Tatiana finally confronts one of the random survivals of Berlin's unsavory past -- chalked scores on the wall of an abandoned underground "Gestapo bowling alley" -- she responds from a well of rage and frustrated justice she has not acknowledged in herself before.
Aridjis, who lives in Berlin, is a daughter of the distinguished Mexican novelist and environmental activist Homero Aridjis and has a doctorate from Oxford in poetry and magic in 19th century France. Magic and poetry are everywhere in "Book of Clouds" as well, and the reader who can appreciate "the fogs of time and the obfuscation that surrounds them" will find here an unsettling atmosphere unlike anything in recent fiction.