A Guide to Berlin – Gail Jones

Mitsuko was from Hagi, Japan. Her father was a potter, the last of thirteen generations excelling in producing the pots his town was nationally noted for. His daughter, instead, became a Lolita Girl. By sixteen she had moved to Tokyo, rebelled against an overly strict guardian aunt and joined street sub-culture. Young ladies, in her chosen group, dressed in the presumed style of Nabokov’s main claim to fame, although Ms M had no idea that her chosen icon had any origin other than Japanese. Even within this genre their were sub-sects. Mitsuko chose to be a goth Lolita.


Mitsuko also became a rental-sister. It is a real job – a much needed one. Just Google it if you are in disbelief. Their calling is to work with hikikomori – young people, usually male, who lock themselves for years sometimes in their rooms, obviously causing great concern for their families. Girls such as Mitsuko are hired to coax them out. They offer nothing of a sexual nature, but trust that the procedures they employ will arose so much curiosity the lads will emerge blinking into daylight. It is largely a nocturnal profession as this is when the young recluses are active in their digital worlds. Such a hikikomori was Yukio. Mitsko charmed him out – but then the relationship became much more and the two fell in love. By this time, to her surprise, she had discovered the true origin of the notion of Lolita and soon she and her partner became devotees of the Russian master. Before he became a resident of the US, the author lived in Berlin for a short period and the Japanese pair travelled to the snow-blitzed German capital to check out the landmarks of the writer’s time there. Whilst visiting one of these they were cajoled into joining a small group who met regularly to share their impressions of the various works by the great man. These gatherings form the basis for Gail Jones’ evocative novel, ‘A Guide to Berlin’, taking its title from a Nabokovian short story.

Cass, an Australian, Victor (American), as well as an Italian pair, Marco and Gino, make up the remainder of the group. Initially they spend time pontificating on the author’s oeuvre, but eventually they branch into their own tales, courtesy of their ‘memory speak’, a play of words on the name of the author’s autobiography. These are a particularly compelling mechanism to set us up for a love affair within the group, some jealousy over that – and ultimately a tragedy that tears the group asunder.

Jones’ wrote the novel during her own visit to a Berlin quaking under the weight of one of the cruellest winters in memory. Her own little flat, over looking a cemetery – see cover photo – is also Cass’ base for her stay. The abode where Nabokov lived during his Weimar years was close by.

My first encounter with the sixty year old novelist was ‘Five Bells’. It could almost be a companion piece to ‘AGTB’. As the title of that book may indicate, it was set in Sydney, but followed the same template – that of relating the stories of a quintet who link up in a random manner. In this case, instead of all being followers of a particular literary giant, they all happened to be in the environs of Circular Quay on a particular day. In this Jones’ newbie, it’s a sextet. This relates to the symbolism scattered throughout – the six pointed Star of David, the shape of snowflakes – as well as being the author’s sixth offering.

Gail J, as with Nabokov, is a sublime wordsmith. I’ll be honest – I tried to read ‘Lolita’ once apon a time and had to give it away. But through Jones’ book his love of wonderful, largely redundant, words shone through. Here’s a few examples to try on for size: leminscate – the shape of infinity; conchometrist – one who measures the curves of seashells; drisk – a particularly European type of drizzle; ophryon – the third eye, site of headaches, migraines and epilepsy; – ensellure (the one I particularly like) – the concave depression formed in the lower back.

Interestingly, in reading some of the background to the book in the media, it was pointed out that there are far more courses in Australian literature available in Germany than here in Oz – one university even specialising on Gail Jones herself.

Jones, Gail

The telling of the this tale by the Australian is coolish, almost reserved in tone as befits the numbing chill of the darkest season in Mittel Europe. She almost holds her characters at arm’s length, making the reader feel little warmth for them. As this is a deliberate device, methinks, the novel loses nothing for that approach. Her prose is skilfully composed and that is the attraction. Her clever eloquence ensures that reading ‘A Guide to Berlin’ is never less than fascinating. And I suspect, as with ‘Five Bells’, it will linger in one’s mind eye longer than many a warmer tome.

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