Books Amir Feshareki reads John Berger's new novel, a cryptic tale of lovers separated by prison walls.
Wait a minute Mr Postman
Amir Feshareki reads John Berger's new novel, a cryptic tale of lovers separated by prison walls.
From A to X: A Story in Letters John Berger Verso Dh98
John Berger's slender, knotty new novel, From A to X: A Story in Letters, is a story of two lovers. A is A'ida. She lives in a fictive town called Sucrat, and the book is made up almost entirely of letters she writes to X: Xavier, a man "accused of being a founder member of a terrorist network". He is the "last prisoner in cell No. 73" of an anonymous "abandoned" prison in the old quarter of the city of Suse. In his preface, Berger posits himself as the curator of A'ida's letters. He informs us that cell 73 contained "a shelf of pigeonholes ... In three of them some packets of letters were found." These were "transcribed" by Berger and a co-editor named "R". So too were notes made by Xavier on the backs of the pages. We are told that the letters are not arranged in chronological order. Thus the question is not so much what will happen, but rather whether Berger will supply us with some thread that will guide us out of an epistolary labyrinth. This amounts to a book with value well beyond metafictional novelty. Berger has not written a novel of literary tricks but a novel in human codes, most prominently the code of letters between lovers and the code of fellow conspirators - both powerful tools for furnishing shared, secret sanctums. The point of the chronological disorder is not to "be different" but to make the reader exist - just as the lovers do - outside of everyday notions of time. "As soon as they gave you two life sentences," one of A'ida's notes reads, "I stopped believing in time." We too must find meaning without help from a linear narrative - and draw hope from A and X or not at all. The plot points are few and far between and the geography of Berger's world is left largely undefined. A'ida writes to Xavier of brief encounters with people named Emil, Koto, Nininha, Valentina and Gema. These ambiguously cosmopolitan characters seem to originate from no place and everywhere. They lack nation and background, and they usually emigrate from the book almost as soon as they arrive, never to be heard from again. From his prison cell, Xavier hears and jots down similarly transient snatches of song from the outside world. "I just want to see you/when the sun goes down," Cassandra Wilson sings on the radio. Johnny Cash reminds us that "sometimes it's hard to find the time between". The melody of Mussorgsky's Les Tableaux d'une exposition floats and flows through the prison's steel bars. Berger often eschews full-bodied characterisation in favour of descriptive brilliance on A'ida's part. At one point she writes with gorgeous sibilance of a "tousled mass of silk threads in all their splendour, dyed magenta, orange, pomegranate red, scarlet, lemon, pistachio green, kohl black, ivory." Elsewhere she describes a tango, "with its blood-beat fatality," between two mourning women. Unsurprisingly for a former painter, Berger often takes the impressionist's-eye view of shades, moods and tonalities in his scenes. Most exquisite of all is a flashback in an early letter to the time A'ida took Xavier's side in the cockpit of a hijacked CAP 10B. "It was your last flight and my first," she laments. It is one of the most subtly erotic passages I have ever come across: "organs ... each one with its neat shape and its definite name - liver, heart, uterus, suprarenal gland, bladder ... unravelling, intermingling, fingering each other!" as the twin-seated aircraft loops-the-loop. This passage hangs over the remainder of the novel much as a bittersweet nostalgia lingers in the mind, refusing to release its captive. Its description of the vertiginous thrill of flight is twice as powerful for appearing in a book about restricted liberties. In Ways of Seeing, his seminal 1972 art thesis (and accompanying television series), Berger wrote of visual art's tendency to perpetuate the notion that "men act and women appear" - that the world exists for male mastery and pleasure (a few years later, Laura Mulvey conceived a term for it - the "male gaze"). In this novel, though, women act and men appear. It is only through A'ida descriptions that the world exists at all, and we must engage her to make sense of it. From A to X combines the passion of a love song with the potency of a political tract, and somehow manages to maintain emotional sincerity throughout. It is a romantic (but never naive) distillation of the quietly rebellious belief that love, even once physically lost, is not gone forever and can defy "an amnesia not of the mind but of the tangible." Just before he gives over the storytelling to A'ida's letters, Berger writes: "How the unsent and sent letters came into my possession, must remain, for the moment, a secret, for the explanation would endanger other parties. The unsent letters are written on the same blue paper as the sent ones. I have placed them in the packets where it seemed to me they fitted. But you can change them." Later, these instructions are recalled in a wonderful description of our heroine's first meeting with her lover. "You wore a leather apron and apart from that a pair of shorts," A'ida recollects, in a characteristically sassy take on the bodice-ripper idiom. "We can change it, if you like," she adds, as if it were an afterthought, as if it really were that easy. Berger's inimitable novel works because he compels us to sort and work our own way through some passionately remembered fragments of two shattered lives. We are lucky to have the chance.