By Andy Ridley
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From A to X

This article is over 15 years, 7 months old
John Berger, Verso, £12.99
Issue 329

Before we read the letters that make up this book, John Berger writes, “The universe resembles a brain not a machine. Life is a story being told now. The first reality is story. This is what being a mechanic has taught me.”

So from the start the words are already dripping with unidentified reference.

Who is the mechanic here? What exactly has the mechanic learnt as a mechanic? What person is this? Why make these comparisons?

Berger tells us he has found packets of letters in an old prison, which he and “R” have translated into English and now present as a narrative of people’s lives. Aida writes to her lover, Xavier, a political prisoner, and occasionally Xavier writes notes or political reminders on the back of the letters to himself (to the world in general?). The two people never meet. They write to each other and this is the sole content of their relationship. Xavier’s replies are absent. Political responses are censored.

We are reminded of how often words fail experience, how censorship interferes with any sense of ourselves.

Berger once said he finds it very difficult to write. He rewrites and rewrites. I imagine he gets caught up in the words and worries about being pretentious and insular and nostalgic. In the past he has pushed and pulled at conventional ways of writing, often using an innovative collage of word and image to get closer to the reader and to the subject he’s writing about. He has championed those people normally forgotten and demanded that we find out more about each other, what motives we have and what we do, so we know as a class who to trust.

His writing has been sensual and insightful, and has got right up the noses of those elite cultural representatives of the ruling class who want to keep the best things for themselves.

But the reason I’ve started writing in the past tense is because I have a problem with this book. The problem is that it’s vague and distant.

The reason I think it is vague is because Berger’s allusion to a lived reality isn’t strong enough. Aida and Xavier are too perfect. They are idealised revolutionaries. Aida idealises Xavier and Berger idealises Aida. She is made to embody everything Berger wishes to say and this is too much for one character to hold. Her self-doubts are romanticised, her beautifully intimate observations are fragmented and the oppression she confronts is indeterminate. She has been made mythical, rather than believable.

To contradict Berger/Xavier’s opening lines, the first reality is not story. The first reality is a shared and sensual lived experience. Maybe I expect too much from Berger. Read this book and compare it to his other writing.

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