I sit in a safe room with the winter sun on my back and read of violence and menace in an icy city. Gail Jones’s Berlin is so bleak and the novel’s dénouement so shattering that I need that brief benign warmth. This is not, I hasten to protest, a spoiler: the book begins by foreshadowing a scene of guilt, shock, and death, to which the novel’s action then gradually unfolds.
Jones’s oeuvre is steeped in intertextuality and imbued with the movement of literary currents and personal bonds across cultures. Her last novel, Five Bells (2011), was infused not only with Kenneth Slessor’s poem but with the shades of other writers. A Guide to Berlin is a variation on this, making the literary debt explicit, not only in the title.
Vladimir Nabokov is the guiding spirit of A Guide to Berlin, as would be immediately apparent to the initiated. He is there at every level, in the title which echoes that of his story, in the texture and pace of the prose, in the lugubrious edginess of the plot, and as the reason why the six characters meet. All are visiting Berlin: Victor, a middle-aged Jewish American academic; a young Japanese couple, Yukio and Mitsuko, both writers; two Italian men in their thirties, Gino and Marco; and the Australian Cass, a twenty-six-year-old would-be writer. They form a group, brought together by Marco, ‘inspired and compelled by a shared interest in the work of Vladimir Nabokov’. At the first of the meetings that she attends they begin ‘a “speak-memory” game, in which each would introduce themselves with a densely remembered story or detail’.