Book of Clouds: Can You Ever Escape the Past?

In The Art of Travel, 6. First Book, Berlin by Havana LiuLeave a Comment

Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis is the fictional first person account of a young Mexican woman named Tatiana who lives, dissociates, works, submits and ultimately searches for some semblance of identity while living in Berlin. Along with discussing universal topics like age and profession, the text specifically deals with the Berlin cityscape as a complex space layered with history, modernity and bureaucracy. These topics however, are not simply discussed as pertaining to Berlin, they are additionally applied to the individual context. The text asks: How does Berlin’s complex identity as a city looking for a sense of self through history, through hierarchy, and through modern masks, mirror the individual pursuit of a defined sense of self? One of the most distinctive ways in which the text asks this question is through its depiction of Berlin spaces.

Within the text Berlin spaces are discussed as holding salient histories simply masked by renovation and repurpose. In many ways the text presents Berlin as struggling with its traumatic historical past. Thus Berlin can be thought of as a city attempting to define itself after walking away from the division of the Berlin Wall, the destruction from War and the Holocaust, yet simultaneously as a place that attempts to take responsibility for the cruelty and confusion that scars its past. There are a few main spaces described within the book as being repurposed or renovated including the tunnels of the U-Bahn (Aridjis, 86), and the Wasserturm (Aridjis, 95). The mention of the last place, the Wasserturm, causes one character within the book named Doktor Weiss to rant about his opinion on the numerous other haunting pasts held in spaces that have been repurposed. The Wasserturm, as he rants, was used by SA troops for “holding and torturing anti-Fascist prisoners. And now is it used, as you say, for apartments ‘with a nice view of the square’ and for those pseudoartistic spaces that have spread through Berlin like a virus” (Aridjis, 95). Doktor Weiss’ piece of knowledge here can be interpreted as a definition of the way in which new Berliner fads that have attempted to take root in the spaces of old trauma. This repurposing of space, by renovating spaces of horror into spaces of trend, seems to imply that Berlin is attempting to erase the residue of the past and replace it with something flashier, and more attuned to a new sense of self.

In addition to the depiction of Berlin spaces as homes of masked history there is a transformation or renovation of identity that is also exhibited within the characters of the book. While there are several scenes in which personal identity is questioned, self-reinvention is symbolized in part through the use of makeup. In the opening of the book, the narrator Tatiana believes that she sees Hitler disguised with makeup as an old woman on the U-Bahn (Aridjis, 5). Doktor Weiss himself is spotted wearing makeup and women’s clothing, completely reinvented as a trans woman (Aridjis, 163), and in one of her most dissociative moments Tatiana herself attempts to reinvent by caking makeup onto her face (Aridjis, 167). In all three of these cases, there is an attempt to hide from the historical identity of self. As the harmless old woman sits on the train she is no longer a powerful and cruel ruler named Hitler. As Ms. Weiss rides the bus with her dark lipstick and red cape, she is no longer the isolated old historian and intellectual. As Tatiana leaves her apartment in her heavy mascara and rouged cheeks, she is no longer the stagnant and lonely tourist from Mexico. All of these new identities allow for freedom from a past self. Yet here, a question arises— can we ever truly escape the past?

With the reinvention of self and identity discussed in terms of space and of personhood, Aridjis persuades the reader to think about the implications of this pattern. In part, she asks, from where does identity derive? Does it grow forth from the depths of history that create the cultural foundations of a space and a person? Or instead do the historical roots of ones self hold no weight in the search for identity? Perhaps a sense of self, whether that be human or site specific, is instead created by active decisions in self portrayal and a decision to move forward towards redefinition rather than towards reflection on what once was. Can both simultaneously exist? In the end, Chloe Aridjis leaves the reader with a final image—Berlin and its population encased in a world of clouds, identities erased, any identifiable urban markings like the TV tower completely obscured by the clouds. In regard to both place and personhood, what is left of identity here?

(Image: Weaving Together the Past and the Present (hand woven, wool, acrylic and cotton); Source: Havana Rose Liu)

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