May 2009

Sean P. Carroll

features

An Interview with Chloe Aridjis

Chloe Aridjis’s debut novel Book of Clouds, published by the Black Cat arm of Grove/Atlantic, is an impressionistic portrait of post-Wall Berlin. Tatiana, a young Mexican woman prone to bouts of intense solitude, takes a job transcribing the dictaphone musings of Doktor Weiss, an eminent historian of the oft-transformed city. Her work with this reclusive chronicler brings her into the orbit of Jonas Krantz, a meteorologist raised in the ersatz environs of East Germany, who is obsessed with the origin, evolution and eventual dissipation of clouds along with the ever fluctuating sky. Her entanglement with Jonas leads Tatiana into one of the many underground worlds of Berlin and amplifies her ever growing anxiety and detachment.

Aridjis’ incandescent prose delivers an atmospheric evocation of Berlin and the ghosts of history that perpetually haunt it. In addition to Book of Clouds Ms. Aridjis has published a book of essays, Magic and the Literary Fantastique in Nineteenth Century France. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and newspapers and her essay on her father, the renowned writer Homero Aridjis, can currently be read on Granta.com as part of their series on writers and their fathers.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in mid-March.


Book of Clouds is narrated from the perspective of Tatiana, a neurotic character who is slowly becoming unmoored from her surroundings; a disintegration that is foreshadowed in the prologue of sorts set in the Berlin of 1986. What sort of advantages are there to using an unreliable narrator?

Tatiana's unmooring is, yes, a consequence of some kind of mental instability but it is also very much a product of her solitude and alienation. The sighting on the U-Bahn in the opening scene leaves an imprint and though she tries to distance herself from it, the image resurfaces under different guises. The other two characters, Doktor Weiss and Jonas the meteorologist, are also seen entirely through her eyes. Whatever we know about them is via her own perceptions, and these are based on speculation and her own strange deductive logic.

Because I wished to leave much of what happens in the book within the realm of ambiguity, I created a character whose thought processes embodied a similar kind of spillage between fantasy and reality. An unreliable narrator immediately creates a detachment from all that is witnessed. It also introduces an element of dramatic irony which I felt was very necessary for this story. 

There have been one or two cranky, short-sighted critics who find issue with "my" views and depiction of Germany. They're completely missing the point. The novel, from beginning to end, is narrated by a young woman who has a very specific and idiosyncratic reading of Berlin and its inhabitants. Everything is seen through the prism of her own fantasies. Things are certainly not meant to be taken literally. The more one reads between the lines, the better. 

There are only three characters in the novel, Tatiana, Jonas Krantz and Doktor Weiss. However, I would posit that Berlin is the central character of the novel but not as a static environment. How do each character's experiences, Tatiana as immigrant, Jonas as a child of the Wall and Doktor Weiss as historical bystander/chronicler, reflect the complexity and evolution of the city?

One of the main themes of the novel is fragmentation: a mental, atmospheric and urban fragmentation. In a sense, each character embodies one of these. Berlin as a city has been reconstructed but it is still vulnerable to certain forms of collapse, always teetering on the edge of some kind of fragmentation, at this point mostly ideological. 

In general, Tatiana's inner crisis is projected on to the city. Berlin is a city without a center. Tatiana is in many ways a human being without a center. 

She is engaged in a continual search for constants (the television tower, the Simpleton at her post), in order to give her life some kind of continuity and also to counter the flux of history and the fluctuations in the weather.

Of course it is easier to project madness or illusion on to the physical world than assume the responsibility of having it in the mind -- and this projection takes place throughout Book of Clouds, especially in the case of Tatiana and Doktor Weiss. The movement from mental image to spectral reality is crucial. 

Tatiana goes to great lengths to keep herself isolated. Yet she has a fondness for the mechanical recitations of the S-Bahn announcer, Doktor Weiss's dictaphone recordings and the sound machine she purchases at the flea market. How does this affinity for the simulated reinforce Tatiana's solitude? 

Controlled environments, such as those of the S-Bahn recordings, the sound machine and even the dictaphone, are more calming, or at least less discomforting, than anything "live" and unscripted. There is a reassuring continuity to the former and a threatening unpredictability to the latter. Tatiana prefers presences that can be switched on and off at will. The perils of intimacy are far too great. 

In your novel there are vivid evocations of the subterranean world of Berlin. Whether it is the ghost train stations left in the wake of the Berlin Wall or the netherworld of the Gestapo bowling alley there is the stark juxtaposition of totalitarianism alongside such mundane activities as travel and recreation. Did you ever get to experience any shadow venues such as these in your years in Berlin? How thin is the line between not only fact and fiction in your portrayal but the city proper versus its alter ego?

I have indeed experienced some of the places I describe -- for instance, the underground bowling alley beneath the abandoned post office (though I never got lost in it) and I did zip through the ghost stations in the East during the two summers I spent in Berlin in 1986 and 1988. Real places inspired fictitious events. 

The architectural strata of a city can correspond to layers of consciousness, to the sediment, individual and collective, that builds up over time. Berlin is a very visible palimpsest. Each type of architecture tells a different story. And one still finds many traces of the attempts at whitewashing and erasure that have taken place over the past few decades in particular. The black Xolo dog is like Lewis Carroll's white rabbit -- his appearance signals some kind of portal, an opening to another world, another layer of consciousness. 

As a city, Berlin will always have to struggle with its alter ego. It will never escape the shadow of its past nor be free of the huge myths and preconceptions attached to it. Everyone has his or her Berlin that exists alongside the "real" one. 

Tatiana glimpses a street woman near the cash machines of the Alexanderplatz S-Bahn and she is immediately captivated by her "quiet brightness." She then proceeds to dub this unique individual the Simpleton of Alexanderplatz, a sobriquet that is reminiscent of fairy tales. Why is Tatiana so taken by her and how is her underlying nature, as revealed in Tatiana's interview, emblematic of the undercurrent of malice and dread that afflicts the central characters?

Book of Clouds could definitely be read as some kind of fable or allegory. I have always imagined the Simpleton as a character from Russian literature of the absurd but yes, of course one can go further back and place her within the fairy tale tradition. She is like a character from folklore and as such, the most archetypal figure in the novel. She seems to come from another place and another century and is at odds with her urban surroundings. 

Tatiana identifies with the Simpleton and sees her as another stranded soul, possibly another displaced foreigner (she imagines she's Russian). Her presence also serves as a way of deflecting from her own sense of loneliness and isolation. 

The figure of the Simpleton was inspired by Gogol, by his caricatures of urban folk and his brilliant portrayal of how comedy can so quickly dissolve into metaphysical horror. Once Tatiana goes up to conduct her interview, she sees a little too much of herself in the Simpleton and is horrified. The Simpleton is deceptively simple-minded but, in reality, probably in full possession of her wits. 

In fairy tales, characters often confront very primitive, almost atavistic, fears when lost in an environment that feels threatening, usually a forest. In my novel, this forest is replaced by an underground bowling alley, a labyrinth of plinths and a neighborhood in the deep east of Berlin. All these are necessary detours, menacing yet quietly magical, which constitute an important part of Tatiana's journey. 

Each character feels threatened by something, be it the country's past, the vagaries of the sky, the invisible yet sometimes hostile forces within the city. 

You took a degree at Oxford in poetry and magic in nineteenth-century France. What sort of role did magic have in that culture and how has your study of that discipline influenced your fiction?

Magic is all about defamiliarization, about seeing familiar things in a new light, or strange things in a familiar light. Alternative realities. Wish fulfillment. Catering to infantile or at least less censored impulses. So many things are going on during a magic show. There is a switch in registers between the secret and the overt, between the latent and the manifest, between the spoken and the unspoken. One could say the same about the act of writing. 

Nineteenth-century poets (and also novelists like Balzac) were fascinated by magic. It was a time when science and technology were slowly demystifying the world around them but this popular drive towards demystification was undermined by a tendency towards illusionism in many of the arts. There was an exciting convergence of post-Enlightenment values and a widespread attraction towards the fantastic. 

While Book of Clouds is your first published fiction I understand that you are at work on a collection of stories. Could you provide some more details on this project or is it still in the preliminary stages?

I have been working on this collection of stories for years and hope to finish it in 2009. The tales are set in London, Berlin and Mexico and if I had to find one unifying theme it would be the confrontation of fantasy with reality. The only story that has so far been published is "The Kafka Society,” about an elusive member of the Kafka Society who finally turns up at the annual congress. 

I am also at work on my second novel, which is set in England with flashbacks to nineteenth-century Paris and eighteenth-century London.