Following news of the death of John Berger I decided to re-visit some of his books, many of which I last read decades ago. In this post I want to discuss his novel To the Wedding, first published in 1995. There must be some truth in the notion that the circumstances surrounding an encounter with an artistic work somehow may affect our response. When I first read this book soon after publication, I admired it as much for its portrayal of a post-Cold War Europe in which the novel’s characters could move with greater freedom across borders as for its its story of two young lovers facing a future poisoned by AIDS. Reading it again this week, still grieving after our own personal loss, the novel overwhelmed me with its humanity, its assertion of love in the face of death, with the fierce determination of a couple who seize joy from the present with a wedding feast described by Berger in transcendent passages that form the book’s conclusion.
What shall we do before eternity?
Take our time.
Dance without shoes?
Re-acquainting myself with To the Wedding, I now believe this to be John Berger’s masterpiece. To the Wedding is a novel of distinct voices – voices that weave and dance around each other. Two in particular propel the narrative of To the Wedding, those of Jean and Zdena as they make their separate ways across Europe towards their daughter Ninon’s wedding which will take place in a tiny fishing village at the mouth of the river Po.
Jean is a French railway worker – a signalman – who lives on the French side of the Alps, but whose parents came from Verrcelli in Italy. He is riding his powerful motorbike through the Alps and across the Po valley. Meanwhile, Ninon’s mother Zdena, a scientist, is travelling, too: from Czechoslovakia, the land she fled during the Soviet crackdown after the Prague Spring of 1968 and to which she returned when Ninon was six years old.
A third voice is that of Ninon, their daughter, now 23 years old, but dying of AIDS. She is beautiful, strong-willed, and thirsty for new experiences. In Verona, she met the self-assured Gino who makes his living travelling from town to town selling clothing at street markets. Their love was a wild and intense affair, but Ninon severed their relationship on learning that she was HIV-positive (though she soon realises that it had been a previous lover by whom she had been infected). Gino refuses to abandon Ninon, and persuades her to marry him. For Gino, the truth is that he will be ‘marrying a woman, not a virus’, and so he begins to plan their wedding, to take place in Gorino, a village located in the watery land where the broad river Po meets the sea.
How do we hear these voices? As in an ancient Greek tragedy, perhaps sung by Homer, Berger indicates at the outset how this story will inevitably end. His narrator is a blind peddlar, Tsobanakos, who frequents the marketplace of Plaka, the historical neighbourhood of Athens, clustered around the slopes of the Acropolis, where he sells tamata. These are small metal plaques, made of tin, silver or gold, embossed with symbolic images – votive offerings bought by those who hope for a blessing or a deliverance, for themselves or a loved one. Tsobanakos hears voices drifting on the ether from distant places and across the years, and it is he who weaves the voices of Ninon, Jean and Zdena which form this story.
Tsobanakos recalls how he sensed the beginning of the story at Easter the previous year. A man – Jean the railwayman – enquires whether he has anything for a daughter.
A baby? I enquired.
She’s a woman now.
Where is she suffering? I asked.
Everywhere, he said.
Then Tsobanakos hears another voice. He realises that Jean’s daughter has joined him from another part of the marketplace. She has bought a pair of sandals. He hears her say, ‘Maybe I bought them for my wedding, the one that didn’t happen.’
There’s a suggestion here that the events of which Tsobanakos is about to tell never actually take place, that his narrative will offer an alternative reality in which the wedding does take place. Berger might be telling us something about the power of words – the stories we tell, the poems we sing – to imagine different realities. It is Tsobanakos’s narration that will be the true tama, a story made ‘not in tin, but with voices,’ its words having more healing power than the votive he sells to Ninon’s father.
Voices, sounds, smells bring gifts to my eyes now. I listen or I inhale and then I watch as in a dream. Listening to her voice I saw slices of melon carefully arranged on a plate, and I knew I would immediately recognise Ninon’s voice should I hear it again.
Berger’s sensuous writing enables us to experience the world as his blind narrator does: as a world of voices, of sound and noise, with the narrative unfolding inside Tsobanakos’s head, hearing its protagonists’ voices as if in a waking dream. For example:
During the first year of my blindness, the worst recurring moment was waking up in the morning. The lack of light on the frontier between sleep and being awake often made me want to scream. Slowly I became accustomed to it. Now when I wake up, the first thing I do is to touch something. My own body, the sheet, the leaves carved in wood on the headboard of my bed.
When I woke up in my room the next day I touched the chair with my clothes on it, and again I heard Ninon’s voice as sharply as if she had climbed up a ladder from the street and was sitting on the windowsill. No longer a child, not quite a woman.
Berger has written – in Bento’s Sketchbook – that ‘living, as distinct from literary, speech is continually interrupted, and there is never a single thread.’ Here is a passage which illustrates how, in To the Wedding, we hear Tsobanakos’s voice and those of the novel’s protagonists weave around each other – in this case juxtaposing the voice of Ninon after learning that she is HIV-positive with that of Tsobanakos narrating her father’s journey down the valley of the Po to her wedding (you can tell from his description of Jean’s journey that Berger is a motorcyclist):
When the signalman crosses the Po at San Sebastiano, where the river is already larger than a village is long, he drives slowly with only one hand. There is no vehicle in front of him.
I phone Marella and I ask her to come round. I have to talk. I tell her what’s happened. Christ! she says.
After he has crossed the bridge, the signalman stops, puts both feet down and looks up at the sky, his arms hanging limp.
This morning when I woke up I didn’t remember. For a few seconds I forgot. I didn’t remember. Dear God.
The signalman grips the grips, revs and taps down into first.
I have a rendevous with Gino in Verona and I shan’t go. No. Never.
The signalman has disappeared behind a reed bank, driving fast now, as if he has changed his mind about something.
The two voices seem to be describing events that are happening simultaneously, but they are not. Throughout the novel, the voices interweave like a partsong, subtly connecting with each other, and Ninon’s story unfolds: how her parents met, events recalled from her childhood, her first sexual encounter that lasts only for a day and results in the tragedy of her being HIV-positive. There is only one truth now for Ninon, and that is the certainty of her untimely death, and of the gift torn from her:
I have nothing. All, all, all, all, all I had has been taken. … The gift of giving myself has been taken away. If I offer myself, I offer death… Come close enough to me, once, twice or a hundred times and, supposing I love you, you will die. Not if you use a condom, they say. With a condom there’s latex rubber between you and your death, and latex rubber between you and me. Latex solitude. Latex solitude for ever and ever. Nothing can touch any more.
She will get sick and more sick, life slowly abandoning her as her body fails. But Gino’s steadfastness, his refusal to abandon her, and his commitment to their marriage pushes back against the future. Gino lives in the moment, and in this moment there is nothing but his love for Ninon and his determination to marry her.
In one of those curious coincidences that seem to happen frequently, yesterday I opened the Guardian to be confronted with an image of Ninon – or at least a young woman who looked close to how I had imagined her. This image is taken from a collection of self-portraits, by the dancer Kia LaBeija, exploring what it’s like growing up with HIV. Kia explains:
I was born with the virus – I’ve never known life without it. I wanted to explore how this can feel, how it can look, how living with HIV has differed from what I expected. All the photos are glamorous, very cinematic and theatrical, as if I’m on stage or in a film. It’s a kind of re-imagination: what my life might have been like had things been different.
I took the shot in 2015, but it had been in my head for a long time. I’m with my doctor, whose surgery I have visited regularly since the age of four. He checks my blood and monitors my numbers to make sure I’m healthy. The photo shows what I see in my head when I go for check-ups. I suppose it’s a kind of fantasy. The dress is the one I wore to my school prom. The colour, the glamour, the juxtaposition – there’s an element of fashion photography, something that has always inspired me.
But it’s also a political statement. HIV has now been following me for 27 years. Transforming it into art is one way to shake myself free, to show that painful things can also be beautiful. I wasn’t supposed to live long enough to see a prom. So this is my way of being defiant and resilient, of saying: “I’m still here.”
I’m sitting on the same bed my mother sat on – which she no longer sits on
There is also a sense of history to it, though: I’m sitting on the same bed my mother sat on, which she no longer sits on. I released this on the 11th anniversary of her death. That’s why the shot’s called Eleven. I felt very alone after I lost her, but I learned how to be with myself and started taking these images. Sitting in that same spot, it’s almost like I have taken her place.
I have been asking myself whether natural forms – a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower – can be looked at and perceived as messages. Messages – it goes without saying – which can never be verbalised, and are not particularly addressed to us.
– John Berger, Confabulations
As Jean rides his motorbike through the Po valley, Berger’s descriptive details are attuned to the natural world – birds, the river, the light, the breeze in the trees – and, also, to the despoliation of nature along the river, with its noisome towns and factories, riparian pollution and rubbish-strewn embankments. Driver and motorbike pass ‘attuned as if they were a single creature, like a kingfisher when it flies low over the water.’ In Bratislava, Zdena visits a carpenter’s workshop where she buys her daughter an instrument that produces the call of a song thrush.
Poppies grow along the edge of the road. Willows border the river and a breeze blows their flowers across the road ‘like feathers from a pillow.’ All the while the land is getting flatter, ‘losing its folds like a tablecloth smoothed out by the hand of an old woman.’ A pall of mist and fumes hangs over the city, masking the sunlight.
The city is being announced by huge printed or flashing words. Kilometre after kilometre of conflicting words which promise products, services, pleasures, names.
In Torino, at the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele, Jean encounters a woman who remarks that the river beneath them is polluted. ‘It’s we who have ruined it,’ she says, ‘we ruin everything.’ The Po has an important place in the story. It’s the dangerous water across which Gino safely guides Ninon to a secluded island. It’s the home of eels whose story is recounted in a significant moment at the wedding, and the source of the fish eaten at the feast. Finally, it is the site of the wedding itself.
Meanwhile, Ninon’s mother, Zdena travels by coach from Bratislava. On the coach she falls into conversation with the man in the seat beside her. This conversation, spread across sixteen pages, becomes the brilliant and vital centrepiece of the story, ‘a guidebook and a song of comfort’ in the words of the author Nadeem Aslam writing in the introduction.
The man beside Zdena asks her where she is going.
To my daughter’s wedding.
A happy occasion, then.
Scarcely. My daughter is HIV-positive.
He tells Zdena that he is a taxi-driver.
A taxi-driver. It’s hard to believe, she says.
We’re all living things which are hard to believe, the man says, things we never imagined.
The taxi-driver asks about the man who wants to marry her daughter. ‘He’s crazy, he doesn’t know what he’s doing,’ Zdena says.
He knows exactly what he’s doing. More than you or I know what we’re doing. When we do a thing, when we decide to do something, we’re already thinking about what it’ll be like when it’s done, when it’s over. Not him. He only thinks about what he’s doing at the moment.
His passion, apparently, is fishing on the river Po.
His passion is your daughter.
Crossing the mountain pass to Italy, snow falls heavily and the coach pulls to a halt. Zdena and the taxi-driver compare their experiences in Czechoslovakia – under communism, and after the fall of the Wall. Later, Zdena will remark to her new friend:
They say communism is dead, yet we’ve lost our nerve. We have nothing to fear and we are frightened of everything.
Now, she breaks down as she hears the taxi-driver – who was once an editor of an encyclopedia – tell her how when communism fell, the entire editorial staff were sacked.
You lose your job working for an encyclopedia, Tomas, and I began composing a dictionary of political terms. We’re political enemies.
My wife makes dresses … No, don’t … yes, do … cry …
I haven’t cried once.
Then cry, my dear, cry.
Her sobs come faster, and so as not to be heard, she buries her mouth in her companion’s jacket. Later she tries to speak but she can’t find her voice.
Then she recites lines from the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva‘s ‘Poems to Czechoslovakia’
And what a black mountain
Has blocked the world from the light.
It’s time-It’s time-It’s time
to give back to God his ticket.
I refuse to be. In
the madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live.
With the wolves of the market place.
Tsobanakos sees the coach speeding on down the motorway.
The bride lays her head on the crotch of her sleeping husband. And Tomas puts his arm round the woman from Bratislava who quoted Tsvetayeva.
As Jean and Zdena approach ever-closer the village where the wedding will take place, Gino has been out on the Po and has caught a huge, bottom-dwelling eel for the wedding feast. It’s at this point, I think, that Gino gains his own voice in the narrative weave. ‘Look at him now on the kitchen table,’ he says.
We’re going to live the years with craziness and cunning and care. All three. The three Cs. Matteo, the boxer, says I’m mad. He says I’m throwing my life away. That’s what most people do, I say, not me.
The fishes, I tell her, listen through their flanks to the river they were born into. I told her this and she fell asleep, smiling.
And so Tsobanakos the narrator guides us to the wedding scene itself:
The wedding in Gorino hasn’t taken place yet. But the future of a story, as Sophocles knew, is always present. The wedding hasn’t begun. I will tell you about it. Everybody is still asleep.
The ancients believed that the first act of creation was the separation of earth and sky and this was difficult, for earth and sky desired one another and did not want to separate. Around Gorino the land has become water to stay as close as possible to the sky, to reflect it as a mirror.
The houses where the people of the Po delta live are small and makeshift. Salt eats away their building materials. Many of them, instead of a garden, have a net stretched on a frame as large as the house, and this net can be lowered by a winch to catch fish. The sky is full of birds – cormorants, grebes, terns, herons, ducks, little egrets, gulls, who eat fish.
Berger’s description of the wedding feast in a field in the village of Gorino is a tour de force, a fluid, richly orchestrated, life-affirming whirl of food, laughter, music, song, and dance. Imagine it as a film, the camera swirling among the guests, as food is brought out on plates ‘as wide as a bicycle wheel’, as bride and groom, family and friends, dance barefoot, and knock back the local wine.
If not a film, imagine it as a painting by Breugel. Another coincidence: as I write this I come face to face, via my Twitter feed, with this painting by Pieter Breughel the Younger. Recently cleaned and re-attributed, Wedding Dance in the Open Air, is to be the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the Holbourne Museum in Bath. Here is Berger’s wedding feast in all its sumptuous detail and saturated colours, and the radiance of a day that could last forever.
As the sun burns down and people laugh and dance, Zdana is told the story of the journey made by the female eels who leave the Po, escaping traps laid by fishermen, and make their way across the Atlantic Ocean to lay their eggs on the ocean bed in the Sargasso Sea. Then the little eels start on their long journey home – back to the Po. It’s a journey that takes perhaps four years. And when they arrive they’re still no bigger than an inch of shoelace!
And the parent eels? asks Jean.
Dead in the Sargasso Sea. The little ones come back alone.
I can’t believe it, says Zdena.
Again she hears her daughter laughing. Zdena lets her head fall back abruptly. Beyond the branches of the apple tree above her, there is the dazzle of the sky and, for one brief instant, without understanding anything, Zdena is happy.
Here is a fine passage, in which Berger describes the moment when the the wedding guests ‘become a single animal’:
Everyone at the table in the orchard sits down to eat. With the meat they will drink the dark wine of Barolo. The guests start to touch each other more often, the jokes pass quicker. When somebody forgets, somebody else remembers for him or her. They hold hands when they laugh. Some take off things they were wearing before – a tie, a scarf, a jacket, a pair of sandals which have become too tight. The cutlets on the board demand to be picked up and stripped clean with the teeth. Everybody shares.
The wedding guests are becoming a single animal who has fed well. A strange creature to find in a widow’s orchard, a creature half mythical, like a satyr with thirty heads or more. Probably as old as man’s discovery of fire, this creature never lives more than a day or two and is only reborn when there’s something more to celebrate. Which is why feasts are rare. For those who become the creature, it’s important to find a name to which it answers whilst alive, for only then can they recall, in their memory afterwards, how, for a while, they lost themselves in its happiness.
Luca will fetch the wedding cake from his van. It has five tiers and is decorated with sprays of orange blossom in icings of three colours. Written in moon-silver on the top-most face is the name: GINON.
Only five letters, he says, and you’re both there! I suddenly saw it when I finished doing the flowers. Do you know what I’m going to do, Mimi? I said. I’m going to
write GINON. The two of you in one! And this becomes forever the name of the thirty-headed creature in the orchard.
The wedding feast forms a haunting climax to the novel, flawlessly formed, a scene of joy and hope delicately interwoven with images of Ninon’s inevitable future.
The beat enters Ninon’s bloodstream defying the number of lymphocytes, NKs, Beta 2s. Music in my knees for Gino, her body says, music under my shoulder blades, across my pelvis, between each of my white teeth, up my arse, in my holes, in the curly black parsley on my crotch, under my arms, down my oesophagus, everywhere in my lungs, in my bowel which goes down and my bowel which goes up, there is music for Gino, music in the little bones of my fingers, in my pancreas and in my virus which will kill, in all we fucking can’t do, and in the unanswerable questions my eyes ask, there is music playing with yours, Gino.
As they dance joyfully in the riverside village, Tsobanakos forsees flickering scenes from the couple’s future. Her first attack of peumonia. Gino pushing her in a wheelchair.
One night she will say: I am going to die.
So am I, Gino will reply.
Not so soon as me. I’ve done nothing with my life.
You’ve made many people happy.
‘When time is pulse, as music makes it, eternity is in the gaps in between,’ writes Berger.
Then, Ninon will not be able to speak any more.
To put a few drops of water into her dried mouth he will have to use a syringe. She will not have the strength to move anything, except her eyes, which will question him, and the tip of her tongue to touch the drops of water. He will lie beside her. And one afternoon she will find the strength to raise her arm so that her hand rests in the air. He will take her hand in his. The turtle ring will be on her fourth finger. Both their hands will stay in the air. The turtle will be swimming outwards, away. And his eyes will follow her into ever.
This novel is a pilgrimage, a ceremony and a choreography. It culminates in a wedding dance where love defies death, life defies death. Here, more than any other of his works, I think, Berger’s writing is at its most controlled, spare and almost minimalist, marked by acute observation and deep humanity. His words have a poet’s precision, and by making rapid cuts (like a film director) between the story’s voices, Berger has found the perfect form for his hymn, elegaic yet hopeful, to the worth and meaning of our lives, so easily stolen by time.
In Bento’s Sketchbook, Berger wrote, ‘Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story.’ To the Wedding is just such contraband to be passed among all those who love literature and seek meaning in this life.
I find the state of the world intolerable. Not life. Not at all, but the way life is run. This is one aspect of my visceral being, and that probably determines to quite a large degree the choice of figures I write about-migrant workers and poor peasants or lovers, to whom the world is not often very welcoming.
– John Berger