GAIL JONES A Guide to Berlin. Reviewed by Robyne Young
Imbued with Nabokovian signs and symbols, A Guide to Berlin is rich, complex and layered with meaning.
Central to Gail Jones’s new novel is Vladimir Nabokov’s astounding memoir, Speak, Memory, which I had studied with Jones in a masters program at Western Sydney University, where she is Professor of Writing.
Jones taught the text in a unit on the theme of time. Through the memoir the class examined Nabokov’s chronophobia (fear of time). Its opening paragraph, ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,’ is as haunting as the ghosts that occupy Jones’s novel.
But a knowledge of Speak, Memory — or of Nabokov’s other works (the novel’s title is taken from one of his short stories) — is not necessary to appreciate A Guide to Berlin. Jones weaves enough of this background into the narrative for the Nabokovian virgin to have an extraordinarily rich and enriching reading experience.
The story centres on six visitors to Berlin – two Italians, Marco and Gino; a Japanese couple, Mitsuko and Yukio; Victor, an American, and the Australian, Cass – who meet in apartments around the city to discuss Nabokov’s work.
Cass has come to Germany hoping to become a writer: ‘Fond of symbolic markers of time, Cass had arrived in Berlin on the first of January…’ but instead of finding celebration, she finds ‘a mess’ and spends her first week in Berlin ‘aimless and uncertain’ and even foreshadows the tragedy ahead:
It had been a mistake, Cass told herself, to arrive at the beginning of winter. There were omens even then of sorrowful times to come, there were obvious signs of disrepair and ruination. At home it was summer, thirty degrees in Sydney. Here she shivered in Europe’s ostentatious reversal.
However, she feels the compact apartment overlooking a cemetery holds the promise of a simpler life: ‘This was the empty single room in which she might recover her own existence.’ (Jones stayed in just such an apartment during a short visit to Berlin in 2013. Her photograph of the cemetery is featured on the book’s cover.)
But a chance meeting with a fellow Nabokov admirer – the Italian, Marco – outside the apartment building where Nabokov lived for five years with his wife Vera and baby son, Dimitri, draws her into the group of Nabokovian devotees. Marco tells her that the group has decided on the ‘speak-memory’ game, where ‘They had made a kind of pact, a narrative pact, to speak openly and freely … each would try to speak with candour in whatever manner or genre they chose.’
Jones uses this device for the characters to reveal the details of their lives, each imbued with Nabokovian signs and symbols: Victor’s father is an umbrella salesman; Mitsuko is afraid of men with umbrellas and becomes a ‘Lolita girl’. With her partner, Yukio, whom she has rescued from his reclusive hikokomori existence, she and Cass speak of butterflies, and the symbol of the coffin that Nabokov so feared is transformed in Yukio’s experience to ‘a stacked room inside a Japanese capsule hotel’. Marco shares his birthday with the Russian writer and Gino comes from a family ‘”… obsessed with the idea of coincidence. For us, signs and symbols converge, duplicate and interweave.”‘ Cass’s speak-memory details her life in a ‘remote part of Australia’ but it isn’t until later, when the group has fully formed and they speak of ‘difficult matters’ that she reveals the tragedy in her own family. By then the characters have created their own world:
How enmeshed they all were. It was startling, Cass reflected, how they overlapped and repeated in their private fixations. They were a group of random foreigners, passing at this moment in history, through this specific city and they were continually discovering symbolic convergences. Interpenetrating knowledge made their association unique. In their para-literary life of drinking and ritualised talking, outside of social forms, a leisure class of their own, they had discovered the gestalt of apparently shared perceptions. No footprints necessary to lead their way.
Around this created world, the new Berlin exists with its Sri Lankan chefs in an ‘authentic’ Italian restaurant, Eritrean refugees and homeless young people, its U-Bahn and S-Bahn, alongside the old Berlin with its rubble, its ghosts of the Holocaust and ‘fifteen thousand unexploded bombs’.
Jones builds the suspense and the overwhelming knowledge that the world of memory the six have created is so dense, so overloaded, that an explosion is inevitable. And, despite this explosion being explicit in the opening pages, when it happened, like the ‘fierce cold’, it knocked the breath out of me. Afterwards, because of the ‘obliterations of winter’, there is no trace of the shocking event, but there is a profound impact on those left behind, including the reader. I wondered too if any of the characters would ever speak this dreadful memory.
A Guide to Berlin, like memory itself – how it forms, what we remember, and in particular how childhood memories can shape the person we become – is complex and layered with meaning.
Gail Jones A Guide to Berlin Vintage 2015 PB 272pp $32.99
Robyne Young writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction, and blogs at robynewithane.wordpress.com
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