One day in 1986, Chloe Aridjis was wandering through the food section of the grand KaDeWe department store in Berlin when she was overcome by a wave of disgust. “There were huge fish and lobster tanks; all kinds of meats and animal parts dangling from the walls,” the writer now recalls. “The previous year in Seville my sister and I passed a restaurant with a suckling pig in the window, an apple in its mouth. My sister became a vegetarian that night. I’m ashamed to say it took me a year to follow.”
Aridjis was 15 at the time of her Berlin conversion to vegetarianism. It stemmed, she says, from an upbringing that was humane as well as exceptionally cosmopolitan and cultural. She has a vivid memory of being introduced as a child in Mexico to the great, blind, Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. “It was in the garden of a hotel. I remember him reaching up his hands and touching my face.”
The hotel was the Via Montana where a number of poets were staying for the Morelia in Michoacan poetry festival, organised by Aridjis’s parents — Homero Aridjis, Mexican poet and diplomat; and Betty Ferber, American scholar and humanitarian. The young Aridjis met a number of other poets, too, including the “intimidating” Ted Hughes.
Her father, an emeritus president of the writers’ charity, International Pen, is the son of a Mexican mother and a Greek father from Smyrna. Her mother’s forebears were Jews from Russia, Lithuania and Poland. Jointly, Aridjis’s parents head the Group of 100, an environmental body whose causes have ranged from the grey whale to the monarch butterfly.
Chloe Aridjis was born in New York, her mother’s home city, in November 1971. Shortly afterwards, Homero Aridjis became Mexico’s cultural attaché in Holland, where Chloe and her younger sister Eva — now a film-maker — spent their early years. In 1980, the family returned to Mexico City before moving again when Homero became his country’s ambassador to Switzerland. Aridjis later spent several years in Berlin, having studied at Harvard and Oxford.
After writing a book comparing magicians with French poets, and some short stories, her first novel, Book of Clouds — ornamented with the praise of such American luminaries as Paul Auster and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — has just been published in the UK. It is set in 2007 in Berlin, a city whose unsavoury ghosts have an almost active presence. In a brief prelude set in 1986, the Mexican-Jewish narrator Tatiana is utterly convinced that she sees Hitler on a train, disguised as an old woman — “the only scene in the book that is 95 per cent autobiographical”, says Aridjis.
The “clouds” of the title figure both literally in the plot and as metaphors for Tatiana’s moods. Conducting a somewhat eccentric quest for solitude and darkness, Tatiana is one of only four main characters, each of whom is an isolated individual preoccupied with matters far beyond the day-to-day concerns of ordinary, contemporary city-dwellers.
“Berlin is a layered and elusive city,” Aridjis says. “I spent the summers of ’86 and ’88 there and went back in the ’90s after the fall of the Wall. There was always something unresolved that kept bringing me back. It is fascinating, strange and mysterious — its strangeness gives you an imaginative freedom. It’ll probably always be my favourite city, but I didn’t want to grow old there.
“It has a pronounced dichotomy between being an extremely vibrant city and also a very quiet city in which it is easy to withdraw,” she argues. “It’s not like Mexico City where, even if you stay home, the city somehow comes to you, with its traffic and pollution. I feel a certain ambivalence towards Berlin, but then I also feel ambivalent about Mexico City and, to a lesser degree, London.”
London is where she is now setting up home after several months in New York, where she felt “very little connection to the place or its culture. I feel increasingly nomadic — much more Mexican when I am abroad than when I go back and realise that having lived in other countries for 20 years has really left its mark. I have dual citizenship — Mexican and American — but the country that feels most like home now is England. I was an anglophile as a teenager. I always loved Shelley, Keats, Blake… Thomas Hardy.
“I feel quite strongly about the fluidity of identities. My Jewish identity is cultural, as is my mother’s, as is my father’s Mexican identity. It is Jewish literature, humour, sensibility that I identify with. My mother came from a family of doctors with a talmudic respect for books and learning. My grandfather had beautifully bound books. It is a tremendous affinity I feel, but intangible.”
Book of Clouds is published by Chatto & Windus at £11.99