A very quiet, meditative book about a Mexican woman adrift in Berlin. Tatiana is alienated from her family and her friends, cut off from the rest of the city, uninterested in forming a relationship with anyone. She gets a part-time job doing transcription work for a historian, goes on a few lacklustre dates with a fairly nondescript meteorologist, becomes slightly obsessed with a mentally ill woman, avoids her neighbours, develops insomnia. The book meanders along like this for most of the 200 pages, as aimless as the passage of a cloud across the sky, before something quite dramatic happens almost out of nowhere.
History plays a major role in the book, particularly the dark stories that lurk beneath the surface. There are plenty of those in Berlin, both from the Nazi and the Communist era, buildings in which people were imprisoned or tortured, now converted into schools, apartment buildings and water towers. Right at the beginning of the book, Tatiana sees what she believes is an aged Hitler dressed as a woman on an underground train. Then there’s the underground Gestapo bowling alley that Tatiana explores late at night and almost gets trapped inside when she runs away from her group to go and rub out the chalked scores from the board. There’s the upstairs part of her building, where nobody seems to live but from which strange noises appear. She goes up there, looking for ghosts perhaps, and finds a dark stain on the wall which reminds her of the scores she rubbed out:
“wondering whether this dark imprint was somehow mocking me, reminding me of the inevitable, which was, of course, that nothing can be truly rubbed away or blotted out, and how the more your try to rub something away the darker it becomes.”
This, it seems, is a major theme of the book. There’s not too much background about Tatiana’s life in Mexico so it’s never very clear what she’s trying to blot out, but she is definitely trying. I read in an interview that an earlier draft of this book had more of the Mexican backstory included, but was cut out from the final version. The effect is to leave much unanswered, which can be a good thing, but it also made it difficult to understand the character’s alienation.
Overall: beautiful, dreamy writing, lots of solitary musing and a good sense of the city of Berlin and its history. But the character is essentially solitary and self-absorbed, which can be frustrating. If you’re prepared to let things meander along, enjoy the elegant writing, appreciate the sharp observations and muse on the possible truths hidden in the shapes of the clouds, this would be a good read. But if you want a plot that develops or characters that interact with each other in comprehensible ways, this is probably not the book for you.
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