From A to X, John Berger. Verso. 224pp, $22.95.
What is the use of hope in a hopeless situation? This is the question John Berger seems to answer with his tenth novel, From A to X. The titular letters stand for the main characters, A’ida and Xavier. He is in prison, and she devotedly writes to him for years; in return, he saves her letters. Those documents make up the text of the novel, and the details about who these characters are and why they are in this situation lie behind every page. What eventually emerges is a portrait of a brave woman, her community, and their common struggle to survive in the face of violent repression. It is a portrait of a woman who has found, in her love, a stronger reason than mere solidarity to continue fighting.
The novel opens with a device not often seen in contemporary fiction: a note to the reader describing how the “editor” came into possession of the manuscript printed herewith. A’ida’s letters were discovered, Berger says, in an old prison in the center of a city called Suse, in cell number 73: a tiny, barren room with little light and few comforts. This was Xavier’s cell. We don’t know his exact crimes, but he was serving two life sentences for something connected with terrorism. And though the correspondence is undated, a reference to “two thousand, one hundred and twenty-six days” in one letter suggests that he was incarcerated for at least six years. We aren’t given any complete letters from him—just a few jottings on the reverse side of the pages received from A’ida—but perhaps that is for the best: apart from a handful of lovely late anecdotes involving fellow prisoners, his jottings are didactic and dry, consisting of statistics, anti-globalist cris de coeur, and scattered quotes from far-left figures such as Subcomandante Marcos and Hugo Chavez.
Beyond not boring us with too much of this material, there is a real advantage in this sketchy approach: in keeping the concrete details of Xavier’s life and ideology to a minimum, Berger invites us into the novel, and, as it were, encourages us to imagine ourselves into Xavier’s cell. This is a surprisingly powerful device. Berger has been called the great poet of homesickness, and one of the achievements of this slim book is that it can make a receptive reader profoundly homesick for a lover she never had, for a homeland she never knew.
It helps that Xavier’s homeland is mythic—constructed, perhaps, from unwanted fragments of many places in our world. The bulk of the references, and especially the quotations from Eduardo Galeano and Chavez, imply that Suse is somewhere in Latin America, but this easy conclusion is frustrated by the way that Berger has drawn the names of characters and locations from all over the world and scrambled them together. People with names from Spain, Russia, Greece, India, and the Arabian peninsula live in neighborhoods whose names are derived from ancient Assyrian and modern English.
The characters’ politics are scrambled in the same deliberate way: no specific ideology is spelled out, although many are alluded to. There are nods to socialism, anarchism, and anti-globalism, so we can conclude that the politics are leftist and motivated by dispossession. In leaving things this vague, Berger forces us to focus on the characters’ lived experiences. In this way he makes the characters sympathetic, especially when detailing the horrors of that experience: deprivations, shootings, helicopter raids, the execution and imprisonment of A’ida’s fellow resistors, and the small acts of kindness the fighters extend one another.
Although this approach has the advantage of encouraging a strong identification with A’ida, Xavier, and their community, it also marks one of the novel’s major failings. The ahistorical quality of From A to X might be a valid artistic choice, but it leaves vague crucial questions about matters that speak to the characters’ moral position. For example: how radical are these people, exactly? What terrorist acts are they guilty of? What kind of regime are they struggling against?
With such questions in mind, Sam Leith of The Telegraph recently disparaged the book for taking place “somewhere hot, with poor people” struggling against a “likewise generic” (and, I would add, faceless) antagonist. The criticism seems to miss the point a little, but only just a little. The fact is, even if we fully buy into Berger’s approach, the cost in terms of naturalism seems very high. Is it more than compensated for by the level of purely human sympathy the approach enables?
For what it’s worth, I would say yes, but there is a second significant problem with From A to X: Berger’s treatment of his characters is thoroughly sentimental. Evil acts are left to the oppressors, Berger’s freedom fighters are the virtuous poor, the chaste woman patiently awaiting her lover’s escape from prison, the child shot by an enemy soldier. Berger does acknowledge in a prefatory note that these characters may be less than pure, and moreover, it seems unlikely that A’ida would slander her cohorts in letters to her imprisoned lover. Nonetheless, these disclaimers are not quite sufficient to silence the criticism.
That said, From A to X remains a compelling and stirring book largely due to the evocative quality of its prose. This quality isn’t immediately obvious. A’ida is not meant to be a great stylist, and her letters are shot through with awkward phrasing, clichés, and spelling errors. But they are also rich with the concrete details of her life, and there is some wonderful beauty in it, especially once the details have accumulated. Consider this letter, of which I will quote about half:
After work this evening I went to see Ariadne in Sayomal, and I picked blackcurrants in her small garden whilst she was washing her hair in a zinc bath. She has much thicker hair than mine—you could hide an army behind it!
They stain your fingers red, the blackcurrents, and their taste, not their colour, is black, and black and marine, like the taste of something living on the seabed. A sea urchin or some other echinoderms might have the same taste, though it would be less strong, less pungent. How do I know this? I don’t know, mi Guapo, yet I know it.
Remember their smell? The smell of blackcurrants? Particularly the smell of their leaves when the fruit begin to ripen. I adore their smell. I want to bring it into your cell.
There’s a variety of white snail who adore it too. You know how many varieties of snail there are? Guess. Thirty-five thousand! I want to bring the smell of blackcurrants into your cell tonight.
These snails are small, the size of my little finger nail. Dozens of them asleep on the leaves, using the leaves as hammocks. . . . The snails go with what I was telling you about the sea-urchins. Any lifetime is absurdly short compared to the longevity of memory. The echinoderms and gastropods evolved at more or less the same period, long before the mammals. And to you they gave two life sentences!
All day it was hot and oppressive—the kind of weather when I want to send you bottle after bottle of cold water. Later, when I sat on a stool to pick the currants, there was an evening breeze, and the last rays of the sun shone agreeably on my back, and I could feel warm silk across my shoulder blades, and Ariadne was splashing in her tub. We have only one life to live, you and I.
I lift up a branch so I can see all the clusters of berries and I start picking.
Here you have all the stylistic flaws I mentioned: inconsistent spelling, notorious clichés (hot and oppressive, evening breeze), that odd mismatched plural “echinoderms,” the awkwardness of “smell . . . smell . . . smell . . . cell.” But against so much that is fresh and surprising, such flaws seem more like characterization than laziness. There is in fact something of the ocean in the taste of fresh blackcurrants, though I’ve never thought of it before; and it is charming to say that the snails are using the leaves as hammocks. More than that, though, the passage accumulates sensual details and deploys them in a way that borders on the erotic when, later, A’ida compares a berry falling into her hand to an ovum descending into her womb, and swears its possession to him alone. The frustration in that is enough to break your heart.
A’ida is also given to amusing, memorable riffs, like one on her personal myth about the origin of almonds, or this one on angels:
They had their weaknesses too, the angels. In the 15th century it was calculated the number of fallen ones was 130 million! Many fell because, like Asael, they slept with a woman! I’m not sure about the order here. It might have been the other way round—then the fall would come before, not afterwards. I’d never be tempted to accept an angel—but I can imagine accepting a fallen one!
A’ida may see Xavier as a fallen angel, but there is a hint that Xavier does not see himself in quite the same way. As a prisoner, it would seem that Xavier would have little access to art, and yet he makes several references to artworks. (The oppressed’s usage of art is one of Berger’s signature themes, so it is no surprise to find it coming up here.) When the guards withhold letters for almost two months, a fellow prisoner offers Xavier a reproduction for his wall to tide him over:
Tonight it’s on my wall between the mirror and [a map of] Australia. A painting by Georges de La Tour of a woman visiting a prisoner at night. He’s seated in his cell. She’s standing. In her right hand she’s holding a candle by the light of which they can examine one another. They’re too interested to smile. With her left hand she’s just been frisking his hair.
The loneliness in those lines is palpable. Xavier’s painting was once commonly known as “Visit to the Prisoner,” but is now widely known as “Job and his Wife.” For Xavier, the painting depicts his most profound fantasy—to once again bask in the presence of A’ida, to feel her touch—and perhaps that is all for him. It is a fantasy that will help him endure, and even inspire him to risk the escape attempt that is hinted at in places. But the picture suggests that Berger has another idea in mind. It seems that he wants us to see Xavier as Job as well—but a different kind, a Job who has known sin. And perhaps it is not the prisoner so much as the woman with the candle who is the fallen angel in this picture.
And this is perhaps where Berger hints at as the use of hope in a hopeless situation. Is it not precisely to help us endure, as Job endured, as A’ida and Xavier endure, and to give us the courage to try and bring about better times? Even if we fail, hope can allow us to set aside sorrow for a moment, and appreciate the ordinary pleasures of life: sunlight on your back, the taste of berries, natural beauty, love shared with another person. These are the kind of experiences recorded and lingered over in this book, much more so than the scenes of bloodshed and fear. In the end, such small pleasures may be all we can expect out of life. Berger seems to suggest that hope may be the one thing that prevents us from missing out on life altogether.
Jeremy Hatch is a book reviewer for various websites and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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