In the square, she took my arm and by common consent we crossed the street and walked slowly to the top of the Mae d’Agua staircase.
There’s something, John, you shouldn’t forget – you forget too much. The thing you should know is this: the dead don’t stay where they are buried.
Imagine that the dead we have loved appear to us in our daily lives as living mortals. That is the premise that unites the various elements of Here Is Where We Meet, John Berger’s journey through times and places in his life – part-novel, part-autobiographical memoir – in which he gives us portraits of individuals he has loved. I have just finished reading this rich and emotional book.
The first story in Here Is Where We Meet is entitled ‘Lisboa’; a man named John encounters his late mother in the White City of labyrinthine streets. They recall shared memories: the trams in Lisbon remind them of the tram they took when he was a boy growing up in Croydon, the number 194. He says, ‘I risk to write nonsense these days’. She answers: ‘Just write down what you find’. ‘I’ll never know what I’ve found.’ ‘No, you’ll never know. Al you have to know is whether you’re lying or whether you’re trying to tell the truth…’
Other stories concern other places in Europe, and in each the spirit of a person who influenced the writer’s life appear at his side. In ‘Islington’, one of the most richly-imagined stories, there’s a woman with whom he shared a platonic but deeply erotic relationship in wartime London. This is a powerful piece of writing that evokes the slow recovery of buried memories and the sense of time passing and its effects on people, houses and gardens.
In ‘The Szum and the Ching’, John prepares a simple meal in a remote Polish village while he awaits the arrival of a newly-married friend and his wife. Sitting by the Szum river, listening to birdsong, he is transported back to the river Ching, which ran at the bottom of the garden where he lived in a London suburb until the age of six: ‘The two moments, instead of being separated by decades, belong to the same hour of the same season’. Berger evokes a Europe still haunted by both world wars, and, as in so many of his books, is alert to the tracks of migration across the continent. He recalls how his Polish friend Mirek worked illegally in Paris, Mirek’s courtship of Danka and the birth of their child, celebrated by the emigre community in Paris.
‘The number of lives that enter our own is incalculable’.
In this book, concerned so much with the dead, Berger revivifies lives that have stayed deep within him for decades, and celebrates those things that make human life worth living: the preparation of food, the company of others, art and literature, political debate, love, sex, and children:
I strolled back towards the house…There were no lights in the windows….The door to the bedroom was ajar. The little light coming through the window trawled like a grey net over the bed. The three of them were asleep. Olek lay against his father’s chest, his hand up to his mouth and Danka was cupped around Mirek’s back. A moth touched my hand in the darkness. Only the human body can be naked, and it is only humans who long and need to sleep together, skins touching all night long.
Within a week, Olek, with his determination, will learn to walk here, and Danka will ask Mirek to build a doorstep to their house.