John Berger: From A to X

A’ida writes to her partner, Xavier, who is imprisoned by a nameless authoritarian regime. The book consists of her letters, ‘recuperated by John Berger’, in which she records small, life-affirming moments that resist the forces of oppression.

Just as her letters reveal Aida’s love for Xavier, so they confirm her dedication to the cause for which they are both fighting. ‘The more we are,’ writes Aida, ‘the larger the target we make, and the larger the target, the stronger we are.’ It is never specified who ‘we’ is and the landscape could be anywhere from Mexico to Palestine. The enemy is injustice and oppression itself.

The vignettes of daily life and the shared moments with friends and neighbours are described beautifully and poetically and are the strength of this book. However, much as I really admire Berger and his work, I always have this problem with him, and I feel it particularly acutely with this book: it’s his old-fashioned, romantic view of the guerilla fighter, the liberation movement (in the last decade he’s been especially infatuated with Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas). In his review of the book, Sam Leith lambasted ‘its gross sentimentality (all faceless oppressors and noble peasants)’, pinpointing its central weakness. Ursula McGuin makes a similar point in the review quoted below.

In the Independent, Melissa Benn wrote:

Set in the imaginary town of Suse, a warm, embattled landscape that could be anywhere in the middle East or central America, every page is suffused with a sense of a terrible unnamed threat. Berger upends conventional assumptions on the causes of conflict. For him, the threat emanates not from some faceless, fundamentalist terrorist waiting to perpetrate violence against the massed ranks of good governments and law abiding citizens but from the defensive and aggressive stance of the globally powerful. His heroes and heroines, the subject of many of his novels and documentary books, are the salt of the earth, those who experience and resist injustice.

[…]

At 82, Berger remains an unashamedly committed novelist. As Geoff Dyer observed in his perceptive 1986 study of the writer, “His belief in socialism animates every line of his work… Like Sartre, he believes that at the heart of the aesthetic imperative there is a moral imperative.” It has made him many enemies over the years. Many loathed what they saw as his uncritical Stalinism, although he later repudiated this misguided loyalty, and his decision, after winning the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, to give half the prize money to the Black Panthers.

Berger remains unapologetic about publicly taking sides, in life and art. He once spoke of “feeling so deeply inside me… a gut solidarity with those without power, with the underprivileged.” It is this visceral partisanship that gives his best work true greatness, while at the same time opening him to the charge of self righteousness and piety.

Ultimately, From A to X is best understood, like all Berger’s best work, as the record of one restless, committed, brilliant consciousness; a late showcase of a mind and sensibility of astonishing range and depth, which should be read as an epic poem or a lyrical essay as much as a novel.

[…]

In an early essay on Ferdinand Leger, Berger wrote that “in a utopia there would be no need for tenderness, for tenderness is the result of understanding human weakness.” From A to X shows us just how far we are from utopia, and how much we still need tenderness and its chroniclers. Towards the end of the book, A’ida adopts a cat that gives her great comfort. Meanwhile, a little white kitten drops into the prison exercise yard, where Xavier and his fellow inmates quickly realise that its back is broken. They persuade the guards to take it inside, where the animal turns on her back. “With her two front paws, she wiped her face, beginning with the ears down to the white mouth, over the eyes. She wiped her eyes as if wiping away the illusions of life, and this done, she was dead… She had escaped.”

When death is the welcome way out, we know we have come to a bleak place indeed, however beautifully evoked.

In her Guardian review, Ursula LeGuin wrote:

A’ida comes across in her letters as a passionate, generous, immensely likeable woman with an excellent mind, completely devoted to her cause and her man…She describes with wit and kindness the people she deals with in her work as a pharmacist, and gives a clear though never explicit picture of the endless crisis of violence her people are living through – the power outages, shortages, flyovers, raids, disappearances.

Who, then, are her people? Where are Sucrat and Suse? No religions or religious observances are mentioned, no sects or dialects, no political parties or factions. The names of A’ida’s friends lead us all over Europe and the Middle East, although seldom, if ever, to an English-speaking land – Gema, Amitera, Yaha, Emil, Zakaria, Susan, Naci, Valentina, Koto, Yasmina, Ved . . . “We”, then, are individuals free of the bonds of religion, nation or party. The reader may imagine these people anywhere, anytime. But “they”, while individually nameless, are explicitly identified and localised by their weapons and acronyms: WTO, Nafta, Apache aircraft, Predator drones, Hellfire missiles, Humvees. “They” are world capitalism and its chief instrument at the moment, the US.

To my mind, this one-sided identification sadly diminishes the moral reach of the book. Because their religion and politics are never mentioned, A’ida’s people are exonerated from bigotry and political folly or factionalism. All crime and error accrue to the named, known enemy. Perhaps A’ida has to believe that, but I cannot.

Late in the book she writes of “a secret practice of women, men, old people, children”:

“Now consider human lives, their every-minute, every-day lives! Their lives depend upon an agreed regularity to which each contributes. Maintaining this regularity is the forgotten practice I’m talking about. It explains the arrival of the fruit in the market each day, the lights in the street at night, the letters slipped under the front door, the matches in a match box all pointing in the same direction, music heard on the radio, smiles exchanged between strangers. The regularity has a beat, very distant, often inaudible, and at the same time similar to a heartbeat. No place for illusions here. The beat doesn’t stop solitude, it doesn’t cure pain, you can’t telephone it – it’s simply a reminder that you belong to a shared story.”

This is a beautiful, moving description of community, of human civilisation, of how we fit into our ecosystem, our rightful place in the world. But it goes on: “And in our life today we are condemned to endless irregularity. Those who impose this on us are frightened by our irregularity. So they build walls to keep us out.” The enemy are frightened of our irregularity, so they impose it on us? The argument has gone to pieces. There are other such passages in the book where wisdom and tenderness descend abruptly into political sentimentalism.

In praise of … John Berger

A couple of weeks back, John Berger donated his lifetime archive to the British Library – for free, as long as a member of the library staff goes to his farm high in the French Alps and helps bring in the harvest.    The Guardian responded with this editorial:

John Berger’s most tangible influences were that tiny band of intellectuals who combined fine-art criticism with a social conscience: John Ruskin; Oscar Wilde; Walter Benjamin. Great writers all, and 82-year-old Berger is their equal. Indeed, that was true as early as 1972, when he published Ways of Seeing, the classic work of art criticism that became a founding text of cultural studies and still has a huge influence on art teachers and their students. What is most gratifying about the report we publish today is that Berger still holds to the humane, generous values set down in that book, rather than make that long, cliched voyage to being a reactionary with a desiccated heart. The archive of one of the greatest thinkers in postwar Britain – a Booker-winning novelist, an artist, a critic – would have fetched a usefully-high price from any number of American universities, but Berger has given it for free to the British Library. All he wants is for the BL’s representative to help him with some farmwork. That is a typically bit of puckishness from a man who, when he claimed the Booker for his novel G, delivered a tirade of an acceptance speech against the event’s corporate sponsors and promptly handed over half his prize money to the Black Panthers. Gestures like that distracted (how could they not?) attention from his aphorisms such as “Nobody had ever sworn in paint before Picasso”. A sharp, bold statement – but it is also generous, helping the reader see the work under discussion. Those same qualities are true of its author.

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One thought on “John Berger: From A to X

  1. I knew and corresponded with John Berger for a very brief period in the seventies. He would be in his fifties, me not yet out of my teenage years. ‘Ways of Seeing’ was about three years into publication. Much of what has been said here was true then. He was brilliant, humane and generous and had a sense of wit that I suspect I would appreciate better now than I did. One of those individuals that I’m glad I encountered and learned from, but wish I’d met when I was more in tune with all he had to say.

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