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by Michael Mirolla

Berlin, from Toronto writer Michael Mirolla, is an ambitious novel concerned with, among many other things, the nature of identity, the weight of history, the significance of catastrophe, and the legacies of both fascism and communism. It is, unfortunately, more ambitious than successful.

The novel is constructed as the hidden writings of Giulio Chiavetta, a patient in a mental institution, which are being read by his doctor after Chiavetta “became visibly agitated” and escaped upon learning of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Chiavetta’s narrative, however, does not concern himself, but Antonio Serratura, a philosopher visiting Berlin for a conference. The city Serratura finds is a surreal landscape of indiscriminate and fetishistic sexuality, of sudden violence and hallucinatory incidents, neatly and symbolically divided by the wall itself. As Serratura ventures more deeply into the city’s underbelly, he becomes increasingly unhinged, until he loses all sense of what is real and what is not.

The story is fairly compelling, and Mirolla’s ideas are thought-provoking (and in some cases, cringe-inducing), but the novel never quite coheres.

This is due in large part to the writing, which is careless and clumsy in the novel’s early stages (“Normally he would peruse the day’s news without allowing it to cause the slightest blip in his behavioural patterns. No telltale raising of an eyebrow or sneerish curling of a lip. And definitely no angry diatribes at the sorry state of world affairs or on the local hockey team’s inability to score.”), and somehow simultaneously simplistic and overwrought later, as Serratura disintegrates. As well, the dialogue is awkward and unrealistic, falling too often into philosophical and expository monologue.

More problematic than the language, however, is the sense that the novel is trying too hard, stretching to make points and draw significance from insights and events that are fairly commonplace. It is easy, when following Serratura’s story, to fall into the earth-shaking sense of discovery he feels, but taking even half a step back, one quickly realizes that there’s nothing new here.