Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
In Michael Mirolla’s Berlin, fantasy is but an abrasion away from reality.
When Michael Mirolla spoke to me at Word on the Street last September about his 2008 novel Berlin, I knew immediately that I was going to enjoy it. After all, how could I not after having lived for four wonderful years in the German capital, exploring by foot and bike its every nook and cranny? Indeed, the opening chapters of Mirolla's masterpiece are littered with the names of streets and monuments that had once framed much of my own daily existence. But Berlin ended up being much more than a stroll down memory lane, and it was certainly not a travelogue masquerading as fiction. Inextricably, I was drawn into this Toronto author's spell-binding tale of Giulio Chiavetta, a man pushed by the guilt of a heinous, albeit imagined, crime to seek redemption in a city where surrealism and absurdity nourish the souls
of its inhabitants.
Berlin is an amalgam of cascading contradictions. The crux is that Mirolla's protagonist, Chiavetta, has never even been to Berlin and there is no proof of the existence of the crime, to which he has confessed. Diagnosed as a severe schizophrenic, Chiavetta is interned in a Montreal hospital where he lives a harmless, near-comatose existence. This is suddenly ruptured when Chiavetta learns that the Berlin Wall has fallen. He leaps to his feet and begins to scale the fence of the hospital's grounds in a quest to join Berliners in unifying their city. He fails. But while the medical staff search his room for clues to his radical change of behaviour, Chiavetta succeeds in finding a second escape route. In Chiavetta's room, his psychiatrist, Dr. Wilhelm Ryle discovers a hidden computer file with a manuscript written by his fugitive patient. In it, Chiavetta’s alter ego, Professor of Philosophy Antonio G. Serratura is summoned to Berlin to attend the First Wittgenstein Symposium on the Realism / Anti-Realism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy. Like a dream come true, the mid-career, undistinguished Serratura immediately hops on a plane to hob-nob with world-class philosophers. But it is not long
before the mediocre Montreal academic finds himself completely out of his depth and embroiled in a series of mad adventures, which push his sanity beyond its limits.
The twists and turns of what we once considered perversions, but now out of political correctness might simply qualify as personal proclivities, dominate this plot within a plot. Dr. Zweck, the conference's organizer, has arranged for Serratura to stay at the Pension Aryana. The spotlessly clean establishment is run by Fritz, the epitome of Teutonic rudeness and good order, and is inhabited by a coterie of guests, whose eccentricities taunt the good philosophy doctor and his middle-class morality. But Pension Aryana is just a
launch pad for Serratura’s descent into the city’s underbelly and a mere prelude to the machinations of the other conference presenters.
Mirolla masterfully injects a strong dose of eroticism into Berlin, melding civilized desire with primal instinct, and naked impulse with academic curiosity. When Serratura's alluring Finnish colleague, Professor Kianta Seppanen, decides to sexually and morbidly test her chaos hypotheses on our hapless hero, Serratura finds himself both an adulterer and the only witness to Seppanen’s pre-planned demise. Attempting to extricate himself from the consequences of both, Serratura ineptly lies his way into paranoia.
Berlin is a surrealistic page-turner. The quirky, if not completely demented, natures of its main characters endear the readers in unexpected ways, and Mirolla’s twin protagonists Chiavetta and Serratura fuse in the vortex of guilt, denial and longing into Everyman.
Berlin is published by Leapfrog Press.