Swans Commentary » swans.com January 25, 2010  



John Berger Unrepentant


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Berger, John: From A to X, a Story in Letters, Verso, London, 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-361-2, line drawings, 197 pages, $13.95


"Solidarity, in itself, is a meaningful quality, that is to say, a quality that gives meaning to life, which makes sense of life."
—John Berger, Observer, April 3, 2005

(Swans - January 25, 2010)   There's no more unrepentant Marxist than John Berger. His perspective has never much wavered. His 1959 collection of essays was called Permanent Red (but Toward Reality in America, where red wasn't being worn). He stayed out of factional squabbles and kept his eye on the crossroads where ideology confronts art. For he was also an unrepentant aesthete. His Ways of Seeing (1972) was sneered at by an indignant critic as "Mao's Little Red Book for a generation of art students." When he won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, Berger gave half the money to the Black Panthers. He kept the other half to finance his research on migrant workers that culminated in A Seventh Man. His acceptance speech scolded the donors for their activities in the African sugar market.

Berger's first novel, A Painter of Our Time, was written in 1956 and withdrawn after two weeks by the London publisher who bowed to pressure, notably from that of the CIA-financed Congress for Cultural Freedom. The novel's narrator purported to have found the diary of an émigré Hungarian artist. The artist returns to Budapest during the revolt against the Stalinist government. The narrator isn't sure of the Hungarian's political position but rather thinks he's against the insurrection.

It's not easy to summarize work extending over fifty years that includes painting, drawing, photography, film work, essays, and fiction. A publisher's flyleaf lists thirty titles. But throughout we find attention to the sensual and humbler things of life, along with a weighing up of duty and guilt. Immigration, displacement, and exile are recurring themes. Berger's imagination roves freely over all of Europe. His decision to leave London in 1962 and to settle in a village in the French Alps was crucial. (He still lives there.) He made the move convinced that the only way to write about migratory workers was to live and work with them. His reason for relocating ought to be underscored now that the trend grows for prosperous northern Europeans to settle in southern climes for the sake of domestic ease and gastronomy. Berger wasn't escaping. He was offering solidarity to the world's poor whom he recognized as the overwhelming majority.

In Berger's later work, love can be seen getting the best of death. It opens a parenthesis in his earlier Marxist analysis to insert a strong moral note. His reported words in an interview suggest the drift of his thinking:

The problem with Marxism is there is no real space for ethics. Okay, there is plenty of space in it for the struggle of justice against injustice, but the notion that an act is good or bad in itself -- there is no space for that. There is no space for that which is outside time or, if you wish, for the eternal . . . There is the possibility of it being combined with another philosophical view which is not simply materialist. (Sunday Times August 31, 2008)

Some have interpreted this as Berger's opting for transcendence, a falling in behind other English radicals like William Blake and William Morris. There's no better place to test the assertion than in From A to Z, a Story in Letters. The novel, first published in 2008, recalls the 1956 A Painter of Our Time in its pretending to be based on documents the narrator has come upon by chance. This time it's not a diary but a series of letters to a man in prison. It should be said, though, that Berger offers the explanation now with a wink that prepares the way for a good deal of authorial license.

The traditional literary form of the epistolary novel gives him a solid foundation. But the incompleteness of the correspondence and his coyness about its origins will let him bend it to his needs. And the most important of these is mystery. Berger, always full of craft, knows that what remains unsaid, what he only suggests or makes us imagine is the test of true art. From A to Z will plunge us into the harshest of real worlds without traveling the explanatory byways of the fat naturalistic novel.

The action unfolds in an unidentified country with a Mediterranean flavor. The mention of Predator Drones warns us not to fuss over geography or time frames. It could be Franco's Spain, Vichy France, the Colonels' Greece, or a North African dictatorship. The reader could imagine himself in South America when the military ruled Argentina and Brazil or Pinochet Chile. It could even be occupied Palestine or Afghanistan in the midst of invasion. Berger doesn't choose to describe the workings of the power structure but only to show that it brutalizes the inhabitants and keeps them poor. Nor does he give us the full back stories of the two protagonists. We know that Xavier is in prison serving two life sentences, accused of being a founding member of a terrorist organization. A'ida, his faithful companion, "his woman," as she says, works in a neighboring town as a pharmacist. Berger also insinuates that she works underground for the insurrection. But since her letters must pass through the hands of the authorities or might be seized by the police at home, she's silent on the subject. The couple has been refused permission to marry in prison, which would give A'ida visiting rights, so letters are their only means to maintain contact.

Now her letters, uncommented on by the author beyond his introduction, make up almost all of From A to X. Xavier's replies have supposedly not survived. The only words we have of his are occasional brief comments on the back of A'ida's letters. Since her letters do not appear in chronological order and include some that she never mailed or that she wrote only for herself, we can see that Berger has allowed himself more leeway than a novel by letters usually permits. He also endows A'ida with an obsessive concentration that verges on self-hypnosis.

For A'ida's task will be to keep a connection alive with a lover she never sees and who will be imprisoned for the rest of his life. From A to X demonstrates her inexhaustible ingenuity or, if you prefer, her love without limit. The situation being what it is, her markedly literary style seems not only permissible, but appropriate. It would be cruel to send a man totally dependent on her words only unadorned lines like a weather report or a laundry list. A'ida's creative strategy will be wonderful to observe.

To be locked away forever naturally provokes in those concerned a radical difference in how they experience time. "As soon as they gave you two life sentences, I stopped believing in their time," says A'ida. And, "Then when I reread the letter and I'm surrounded by your warmth, the words you've written belong to the distant past and we are looking back at those words together. We are in the future. Not the one we know so little about. We are in a future that has already begun. We are in a future that has our name."

The forgotten, not the ephemeral, is for A'ida the opposite of the eternal. Memory becomes her shield and weapon. "The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. [...] Let's make the past together." She retells the story of their meeting. He's a welder in a leather apron, alone in a junkyard repairing a truck. Someone asked her to drive out and deliver a car battery to him. When A'ida finishes her evocation, she asks, "Agree to this version?"

Xavier notes how "delocalization" is not only a moving of production to where labor is cheap. It's also an attempt to make the world "a Nowhere, and a single liquid market." He won't have it: "This prison is not Nowhere." Although Berger leaves the country unidentified to sharpen his storytelling, he nevertheless agrees that Somewhere is right there under A'ida's feet. She tells Xavier about Gassan the barber who learnt about place when his house was destroyed by a missile. It had been mistaken for a hideout. Gassan had gone to the market and stopped for a game of cards. At the news he got to his feet, his legs folded under him and he fell to the floor without a sound. Later he looked over the ruin. There were only pipes and wires where his life had been. He wandered off and came back with an old broom. He began to sweep the place where his home had stood.

In a letter that couldn't be sent, A'ida tells Xavier about the old tobacco factory where seven hunted men fled. To prevent shelling, three hundred women crowded around it and on the roof. An Apache hovered. They could see the two Hellfire missiles and the mini-guns pointing at them. A'ida asked the poor woman next to her in the human chain if she knew how much an Apache cost. She said no, and A'ida told her fifty million dollars. Tanks circled the factory and then drew up right against the women. Each summoned up her strength. "If you underestimated the willpower needed, you'd break line and run before you realized what you were doing." One woman, late to join the others, came running down a hill, which unnerved the soldiers who shot her dead.

More often, A'ida tells Xavier of quiet scenes. In the pharmacy at night she would give help as a nurse or even function as a physician. The glimpses of people she sent him in her letters were all rooted in the grit of her unique place in the universe. In the bakery:

You can tell by looking at the loaf that it still too hot to hold. Twenty men waiting in the bakery down the street from the pharmacy at 6 pm. They always let me go first if I'm wearing my white overall. They wait for as long as a quarter of an hour and watch the bread being taken out. It seems to me we never had time to do this. The baker doesn't glance at the men, he keeps his eyes on the bread and on the embers at the back of the white hot vault. And the men wait attentively as if watching some kind of contest. (Page 27)

We have no letters from Xavier and yet, close-mouthed as we imagine him in life, he stands, shoulders squared, at the center of the novel. His jottings on the back of A'ida's letters reveal a man concerned with the entire world seen through the eyes of the poor. He realizes their weakness, but also their strength in numbers as well as in asymmetrical opposition. The very raggedness of their resistance disconcerts their oppressors. Their silences keep the powers-that-be guessing. The history of the poor, moreover, he believes will never be totally silenced no matter how words are twisted. Precariousness is their strength because in spite of everything they do in fact manage to survive. And no human being will ever be fully convinced that only wealth can make sense of being alive. Xavier's faith in humanity has a utopian ring. This suits his mender's mentality and the mechanic and pilot that he has been. "Life is a story being told now," he says and tempers his faith: "It's not that we have hope -- we shelter it."

A'ida, naturally, has her own view of Xavier. It can be summed up in what she claims is permanent in women's attitude toward men: "[...] women recognizing the men they come to love as victors whatever happens [...]." She is willingly led by Xavier, a learner beside him. He is patient with her as with everyone, perfectly self-controlled. When he stands up to the prison guards he's principled, but calculating. "In your voice there's a waiting for the train to slow down so you can jump." Referring to a friend's complaints, A'ida says only Xavier could decide which wrongs could actually be remedied. He would then indicate the practical steps to take. Though Xavier deftly puts broken machinery right, he's more a poet than an unthinking repairman. He traces the mental process by which men conceived and constructed the machine in the first place. A'ida doesn't speak of Xavier's "grace under pressure" but the worn Hemingway phrase is on the tip of her tongue.

Despite its beauty and nobility, From A to X leaves us slightly uneasy. The artful play between information and the withholding of it proves inadequate at one point. We can't begin to understand Xavier as a man unless we learn why he has been put in prison with two life sentences. Was he wrongly accused? If he really did found an insurrectional network, what sort of orders did he give his followers? Did innocent people die because of his decisions? Did guilty people die? Did he himself actually shed anyone's blood with his own hands? Does he feel guilty? The very fact that Berger offers us intimate portraits would require that we know.

Another source of perplexity is A'ida herself. After admiring her womanly devotion for two hundred pages, we feel the imp of the perverse pulling at our sleeve. Given the couple's unfortunate situation her heroism is all that could be desired -- but desired by whom? Her behavior is ideal, and that's the rub. We can't help wondering if this perfect handmaiden hasn't been created head to toe by a needy male. Berger begins his novel with an epigraph from a Shakespeare sonnet that declares love time-defiant "to the edge of doom." We willingly grant the 16th century poet a moment of idealism in his generally bleak and convincing picture of humanity. But in our world this kind of optimism can lead to confusion and worse.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/pbyrne118.html
Published January 25, 2010