If you are looking for a practical guidebook to help you navigate the city of Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov's 1925 short story A Guide to Berlin, despite its name, probably isn't the best place to start. It does, however, capture the very essence of the city during a particular details, focusing on the minute details many would consider mundane. Likewise, Gail Jones's new novel of the same name explores certain aspects of the city—especially its literary and cultural heritage—through the eyes of six foreigners.
Cass, an Australian, has just arrived in Berlin and has ambitions of being a writer — "a universal affliction," she confesses. While visiting the Nestorstrasse house in which Nabokov lived during the 1930s, Cass meets Marco, a literature student turned estate agent and fellow Nabokov fan. Convinced that she will fit in perfectly with his group of close friends — all admirers of Nabokov — Marco persuades Cass to join them at their next gathering. The others are, for the most part, writers or would-be writers: Gino from Rome, Victor from the US, and Yukio and Mitsuko from Tokyo.
They meet once or twice a week to talk and drink, rotating nomadically through different apartments. Each time, they share stories with one another. These aren't long and comprehensive autobiographies, but single 'speak-memories', structured very much like the best short stories, focusing in on the most intricate details of significant events in their lives and of their own connections to Nabokov. Structured, in some ways, like Nabokov's own A Guide to Berlin. These stories are always beautiful and often sad and they make Cass, and thus the reader, feel an intimate connection to the storyteller even though she knows very little about her new friends.
The friends become close, seeking comfort in one another as the bitter coldness of the Berlin winter begins to set in. In the third act, however, something happens that completely alters the tone and mood of the novel, bringing into question the robustness of these new friendships and testing the loyalty of the friends.
Like the speak-memories it includes, Jones's novel is beautifully constructed, intriguing and with meticulous attention to detail. Even before the darker pages of the final section, a sense of loneliness and dolefulness echoes through the words; the inescapable loneliness of travellers — expats and exiles — who aren't home and can't go home, perhaps. The cold greyness of city contrasts starkly with the bright pops of colour — the tulips and neon signs — which don't seem to offer much comfort. Interestingly, the Australian cover of the novel depicts the greyness and the snow, while the UK edition bursts with colour in its design inspired by a U-bahn map.
Disclaimer: A Guide to Berlin will be published in the UK in January 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.