Social creatures that we are, we are also fundamentally alone. Great fiction straddles this dichotomy with a knowing sense of the fragility of the balance between the two. When either dominates a life, all the human play of emotion, suffering, madness, love, ecstasy, and even death occur.
First novels are too often caught up only in the movement from the solitary to the social; featuring, for example, the young breaking the family bonds of home, the outsider artist finding community, the loner finding love, or the student finding meaningful work in an organization. It is unusual to find a young novelist with the wisdom to understand the equal importance of moving from too much community back to solitude.
Chloe Aridjis’s first novel “Book of Clouds” is about a young, Mexican expatriate’s life in Berlin. Tatiana is in a new apartment, her fifth in as many years. She has jumped from job to job honing her German language skills and now works transcribing the dictated notes of a reclusive historian fixated on the “ghosts” of places throughout the city haunted by the occupations first of the Nazis and later of the Stasis. She spends her time off riding the S-Bahn trains, walking the streets, choosing breads at the local bakery, and contemplating her solitude.
Having worked in her family’s Jewish deli in Mexico City, Tatiana brings a sense of ironic disenfranchisement to Berlin where the plot to extinguish all Jews in Europe was born. “There’s solitude and then there’s loneliness. Monday through Saturday were marked by solitude but on Sundays that solitude hardened into something else. I didn’t necessarily want to spend my Sundays with someone, but on those days I was simply reminded, in the nagging pitch that only Sundays can have, that I was alone.”
“Book of Clouds” is the story of her struggle to find some balance between that solitude and loneliness. Newly arrived in Berlin, Tatiana briefly describes her early visits to the bars and clubs, her brief romantic contacts, her attempts to become engaged with others, but it is clear that she really prefers her solitude.
She observes others in great detail imagining their lives from that of the street beggar woman she nicknames the Simpleton because of her constant smile to those of the three old ladies in the apartment below her watching through its curtains as she comes and goes.
She gets her greatest social comfort from the recorded voice on the S-Bahn: “There was a spring to his utterances, a buoyancy packed and delivered in anticipation of every stop, and I would put away my book or newspaper and sit back and listen to the stations as they were rolled off, one by one, uninterrupted.”
Perhaps because “Book of Clouds” is told in the first person with all of Tatiana’s detached hypersensitivity to her surroundings, the reader sees much but experiences little. The plot merely follows her in her daily life.
Through the old historian, she meets Jonas, who had participated in an East German grade school art contest picturing the Wall. He now is an amateur meteorologist mapping the weather on the walls of his non-descript apartment in the east side, and there he shares with her his cloud theory: “I used to pretend to keep a cloud garden, which I fed daily. And when the clouds were big and strong I would unfasten them from their roots and let them drift upward…a whole existence might be reduced to drifting upwards to join a cloud rack, merging with a slow-moving flock and then, in a matter of minutes, without having left any imprint on the world, returning to the atmosphere the elements it had been lent.”
They meet for drinks a few times and attend an impromptu party in an old post office. She decides that sex with him would be worth pursuing, but immediately afterwards confesses: “by the end, once we attained what we’d each wanted and the ache between my legs had been replaced by a tingling soreness far from unpleasant, I began to long for Jonas to leave. I wanted to be alone again, in my bed with my sheets and pillow, no other body warming the space, no other breathing filling the room.”
And so she returns to her trains with the soothing automated conductor voice and to her solitude. “I would sit for what seemed like eternal stretches at the kitchen table and eat bread and honey…When I wasn’t eating bread and honey I still went for my walks, although I found it hard to clear my head with so many people around, so I would wait until it grew dark to go out and then keep to the quieter streets.”
Although nothing really happens in this lyrical little novel, Aridjis completely captures a world where we have many homes and many languages and are surrounded by history and vagrants and lovers and eccentrics, yet we are still very much alone.
Aridjis has created in “Book of Clouds” a very fresh and refreshing look at this world. Even if she never writes another, she should not have to carry the qualifying adjective “first” along with it.