John Berger: From A to X

John Berger is one of two writers on the Man Booker Prize longlist 2008 who has won the award before. Whereas Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children went on to win the Booker of Bookers in 1993 and the Best of the Booker in 2008, Berger’s 1972 win, for the novel G., remains something of a footnote in the history of the Prize. His win is typically summed up by lazy journalists (and bloggers) with a selection of stock phrases – Black Panthers / colonialist policy / half prize money – and the book seems little read. (Not incidentally, in 1972 the judges were George Steiner, Elizabeth Bowen and Cyril Connolly.  There was a shortage of politicians and TV celebrities in those days.) So can this novelist, critic, artist – this John of all trades – cause a similar upset to the Booker circus this year?

From A to X is subtitled A Story in Letters, and Berger in his introduction tells us that the letters were found in cell no. 73 of the old prison in the fictional town of Suse. They belonged to Xavier, an insurgent who was imprisoned by occupying forces (the country is unnamed but the parallels are not hard to extract), and sent to him by his lover A’ida.

A’ida tells Xavier of life in the town where she still lives. Her account is laconic but immersive:

Let me tell you what I can see at this moment. Crammed windowsills, clotheslines, TV satellite dishes, some chairs propped up against a chimney stack, two bird cages, a dozen improvised tiny terraces with their innumerable pots for plants and their saucers for cats. If I stand up I can smell mint and molokhiyya. Cables, telephone and electric, looping in every conceivable direction and every month sagging more.

She describes her encounters in the pharmacy where she works, exhibiting small acts of kindness to strangers which contrast with the conditions she and the townspeople live under threat from other strangers: the ‘faceless power’ which encroaches on the country. Her letters are refreshingly free from the sort of anger and bitterness that we might expect her – or a good socialist like Berger – to have against such forces. The anger, instead is provided by Xavier’s comments, written on the backs of the letters.

IMF WB GATT WTO NAFTA FTAA – their acronyms gag language, as their actions stifle the world.

This is one of the less subtle examples, and Xavier is better when quoting others, such as Eduardo Galeano here:

“No history is mute. No matter how much they own it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.”

Despite these interventions, Berger hides himself well. A couple of times, when he enters the text (as ‘editor’ of the letters), to comment on indecipherable words, I was temporarily jolted out of the reality of the story. This consists not just of A’ida’s present experiences, but recollections of her past with Xavier – probably breaching the convention against having characters in a book tell one another what they already know. But that hardly matters when it’s done as beautifully as, for example, the long sequence where Xavier takes A’ida flying for the first time (“Earth and sky furled and unfurled like a flag from the mast, and time vanished”).

Time vanishing seems relevant to the book generally. As a prisoner, Xavier cannot be sure where (or when) his future lies. A’ida and her townsfolk feel their lives to be on hold, able only to execute those most mundane tasks which are nonetheless the very stuff of life. And the book as a whole has the strong feel of ‘late work’ – that spareness and looseness of structure which speaks of a putting together of thoughts, almost a miscellany within a fictional frame. These thoughts, aphoristic in form, do tread the line between profundity and banality, but the trick of putting them in A’ida’s warm and fluent voice gives them a good deal of charm to cover the occasional toe-curler or non sequitur.

Nonetheless this is not a book to be approached with cynicism, under which it would probably collapse to the sound of laughter. Indeed my pleasure in it was surely enhanced by having read it immediately after Tom Rob Smith’s Booker nominee Child 44, in a mood when I was eager for anything which was in any way ambitious or out of the ordinary. From A to X certainly is that, and indeed it took me longer to read than Child 44 despite being probably one third of the length. It is a book which encourages a languid approach, and would probably be better enjoyed outside the sort of Booker circus in which I have enrolled myself.

The past is one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is change its consequences.

John, it’s OK, we’ve all forgotten the Black Panther thing, honest. …Wait a minute, you’re not still talking about Child 44, are you?


  1. Hm, I’m glad you enjoyed it overall, but it doesn’t sound entirely successful for all that. Am I right that A’ida’s narrative forms the bulk of the book (as opposed to the commentary thereon by Xavier and Berger himself)? I ask as the language of her narrative appears to be where the book works best, with the commentary less successful.

    Does the element of having Xavier comment on the letters in any way preempt the role of the reader? It sounds a slightly clumsy device, perhaps I could have worked out for myself that occupation is bad based on A’ida’s text, without needing to be expressly told. Is there any lessening of the gap between the novel and the reader by virtue of that device would you say? Following Child 44, does it leave the reader with work to do?

    Unfortunately, personally I fear I would find that odd apostrophe in A’ida too jarring to allow me to immerse in the book, but that’s my issue rather than Berger’s.

  2. This review is at least somewhat encouraging, John, though I’m still waiting for you to exclaim high praises for one of the books I haven’t read yet. While I am enjoying on some level the books I’m reading this year, it’s not the level I want. I’ve got this one left in the pile (halfway there!), so hopefully it (or another) will redeem this year for me! As it stands, I’m throwing my weight behind Netherland and a shorter than usual shortlist – though that seems to offend some writers, and with the inclusion of Child 44 apparently this group of judges doesn’t want to be too exclusive.

  3. I am glad that a short book has challenged you!

    Sounds encouraging – best presents in small packages? (Or, how does that saying go? I always mangle the sayings.)

  4. This is one I want to read soon. It sounded interesting and I have not read him before although I have at least one of his books on my shelf.

    So far I am getting the feeling that none of these books are wonderful. I wonder which one will be the surprise.

  5. Max: Xavier’s comments don’t pre-empt the reader, largely because they seem only tangentially related to the content of A’ida’s letters. His comments in fact are more in the line of rants against the (thinly veiled) US. And there is work for the reader to do, if not hard work, first because for the most part we only hear one side of their story, but also because Berger’s – I mean A’ida’s more, er, gnomic pronouncements can leave the reader scratching their head (‘folk wisdom’, Stephen Mitchelmore called it – his post as always is worth reading), not always for the right reason.

    As I say though, despite the book’s shortcomings I did enjoy it overall. Berger unlike most of the writers on the longlist does not seem to be governed by what he thinks the reader expects to hear, or by notions of good literary taste, and frankly is not afraid of appearing ridiculous. I’d rather have a book that tries and fails than something like Child 44 which doesn’t try. But I realise that such a comparison is not especially flattering for Berger.

    However Trevor and Candy are right to note that I have not been overwhelmed by any of the Booker longlist titles so far. I’ve now read eight of them (written here about six so far), and I’m not really expecting a revelation in the last five.

    Andrew, I know – writers and literary critics as judges indeed! This simply doesn’t comply with Chairman Portillo’s requirement of “geographical balance.” I notice too that he has completely omitted temporal balance – all the longlisted books are set in the past and (a few) in the present. None at all set in the future! He must feel very foolish right now.

  6. I read a savage review of it in The Telegraph the other day – I imagine it’s online somewhere – whose conclusion was that it was … er … “bollocks”.

  7. So great to see you’re making your way through the 2008 Booker Longlist. Your reviews are really insightful and enjoyable to read… I’m still not sure which ones I’m going to read…. I want to, but none are really standing out to me as a must-read.

  8. I’m glad your review of this one was favourable as it was the one I am most looking forward to on this years list. I’ve heard about Berger’s interest in visual media and I hoped that would come across in the writing. You saying it deserves a more leisurely read probably implies it does. It also sounds like the book that is most different from the usual novel structure this year which also appeals.

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