A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones


I am a fan of this Australian writer: her Five Bells, set lovingly in Sydney, and Sixty Lights, a wide-ranging, beautifully written book, were outstanding. This one has the same name as a short story by Vladimir Nabokov and is set in Berlin where he lived from 1922 to 1937. I am confident that I missed much in this book because if I have read anything by Nabokov other than Lolita, I don't remember it. 

Berlin itself is a character in the book, as Sydney is in Five Bells, though not such a beloved character. It's January when the main character Cass, an Australian woman, arrives and the frigid temperatures make the city hard to bear. She is exhilarated by the snow, a limited enthusiasm I should think. She meets an Italian man when she is visiting a house where Nabokov lived and is invited to join a group of five others who are Nabokov enthusiasts. They are an international group: two Italian men, a Japanese couple, and an older man who is American. 

They each agree to tell their own story, calling it Speak, Memory, the name of Nabokov's autobiography. They each take a turn and over the course of that time, Cass spends time with each of the members separately and becomes the lover of one of the Italian men. When Cass takes her turn last, she was conscious that she was unable to reveal much that was truthful about herself. The various meetings with individuals introduces us further to Berlin, as well as the group members. Cass is drawn to the train lines and more than once rides the ring line when she needs comfort. When the group finished their speak-memories, they agreed to talk about Berlin. The aquarium and fountains were mentioned and Cass speaks of the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn, and all their stations. The pace of the story telling to this point is slow-paced, unhurried.

When a tragic event occurs, they react blindly, making things worse and the writing becomes urgent and intense. Their speak-memory revelations didn't prepare them for the turn of events and their own unfortunate reactions to it. In the aftermath of the disaster Cass realizes this:

    And Gino, what private disaster had he been expressing? They had been tricked into believing that the speak-memories had told them everything, but in all that mattered, finally, there was no trustworthy knowledge there. The most earnest and open story still meant nothing assured. This was the surprise of other people: their wealth of remorseless secrets. And this was what she had learnt: the failure of any tale.

The tales the characters told were that; they were unable or unwilling to reveal important truth about themselves. 

Gail Jones, A Guide to Berlin, Harvill Secker (imprint of Vintage), 2015, 260 pages. Available through Amazon.

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