My experience reading Book of Clouds suffered slightly from skewed expectations. I kept waiting for something to happen, for the story to really kick in to gear. Each time something out of the ordinary occurred, I’d think, this is it! Now the story really begins! And then it wouldn’t, at least not in the way I expected. In retrospect, I’m probably not the first person who’s read Book of Clouds and felt this way, and this is, in part, what Book of Clouds accomplishes.
The novel follows a young woman, probably in her mid twenties, living alone in Berlin, an expat from Mexico where the rest of her family still resides. The setting of Berlin is what drew me to this book. I’ve been fascinated with post-war Germany and specifically Berlin for a few years now, and so a novel about a foreign girl living alone in Berlin was appealing to me for obvious reasons.
Beginning early on in the book there are scenes that don’t seem quite real, for example when the protagonist reflects on a memory of seeing an old woman on a train who resembled Hitler so precisely that she decided it was indeed Hitler himself on the train with her. Every time one of these not-quite-real scenes occurred, I’d expect the story to transform into something else: something with magic, or a mystery, but it never did. Instead, it was almost disappointingly realistic. A chance encounter doesn’t become a great love. Her employer, an old historian, never really opens up to her; never spills his secrets, if he has any. There’s no one hiding in the attic apartment upstairs. People and places are left behind without a fuss or dramatic parting of ways. And to me, this is what Book of Clouds was about. It wasn’t particularly hopeful, but didn’t leave me feeling hopeless either; there was an absence of expectation- positive or negative. It was, even with the magically-charged moments or dream-like scenes experienced by the protagonist, strikingly real.
Links: Interview with Chloe Aridjis | Goodreads | Amazon
Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov, a Bulgarian who moved to America at 18, is a strange novel, and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. While I have a lot of criticism for it (albeit vague criticism as you’ll read shortly), I enjoyed it, and I certainly don’t regret reading it. It’s a book that I likely never would have picked up if I wasn’t specifically looking for books by Bulgarian authors, and finding books by chance encounter is one of my favorite means of discovery.
Stork Mountain is difficult to follow. Stories pick up and then lose track of themselves in other stories. There’s multiple romantic narratives, familial narratives, historic/cultural narratives, and spiritual narratives taking place in different centuries and on different timelines, but that are all woven together. It’s a book best read with as little interruption as possible (I mistakenly began it before leaving for Bulgaria and did not pick it up again until I returned and consequently struggled to keep track of the multitude of stories). It feels almost too big for itself, like it’s trying to do too much, cover too much in one novel. It’s broken up into seven parts, and I couldn’t begin to differentiate one part from another.
The best moments in Stork Mountain are the ones dealing with the long, difficult, inter-woven histories of the Turks, the Greeks, and the Bulgarians. The Muslims and the Christians. The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of communism. There’s a fascinating, tragic, deep-seeded history in this part of the world that is all but unknown to many people in the West. And while I criticize Penkov for trying to force too much into one book, its hard to blame him when the history of this region is so vast and so varied. Whether or not you choose to read Stork Mountain, I’d encourage everyone to expose themselves to more stories from Eastern Europe because there is a history there that is just as valid, just as vast, just as complex, and more ancient than anything the western world has to offer.
Links: Miroslav Penkov .com | Goodreads | Amazon