John Berger
Pantheon ($24)

by John Toren

Today's culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them. —John Berger

At the age of 80, John Berger retains the curiosity, originality, and daring that have made him one of the Western world's most engaging thinkers for nearly half a century. To describe him as a thinker, however, does not do justice to the immediacy of his recent essays, novels, stories and critical works, which seldom remove themselves for long from the experience at hand. Here Is Where We Meet offers somewhat longer forays into that zone of meditation-experience than those to be found in Photocopies, yet whether he's visiting the pre-historic rock art in the caves at Chauvet, describing the preparations for a friend's wedding in a remote Polish village, or attempting to differentiate the flavors of various types of fruit, Berger succeeds in sustaining the quivering flow of sense and thought that made those brief sketches appealing. Berger's prose is seldom exciting. It takes us in the opposite direction, in fact, away from the rush of drama toward the penetration of people and things. Though it's described on the cover as "a fiction," Here is Where We Meet is actually an autobiographical pastiche. By the time we reach the end of it, we've been taken from Berger's father's experiences in the trenches of World War I to a recent motorcycle trip he took with his daughter to visit the grave of Jorge Luis Borges in Geneva.

Whether any of the events Berger describes are actually true I have no idea, but they are not relayed in anything resembling a chronological order. The first essay-story-meditation, in fact, describes Berger's encounters in Lisbon with his mother. Strange as it may seem, she happens to be dead. Once we've quit trying to figure out how Berger can be talking to a dead person, we begin to more fully appreciate the richness of the mother-son dialogue that's going on. It would appear that Berger is trying to re-imagine his mother's early life, re-sort the impressions and snippets of conversations he overheard as a child, and also fill in a few blanks. This is the way the mind works, remembering, re-ordering, looking for what will hold together and make sense. Berger meets up with his mother only occasionally, however, and meanwhile he's passing the days in Lisbon, relishing its people, its markets, its aqueduct:

The trams in the center of Lisbon are very different from the red double-decker ones that used to run in Croydon; they are as cramped as small fishing boats and they are a lemon yellow. The drivers, as they negotiate the steep, one-way streets, and nose their way round blind jetties, give the impression of hauling in ropes and holding rudders rather than turning wheels and operating levers. Yet despite the sudden descents, the lurches, the choppiness, the passengers, mostly elderly, remain contemplative and calm—as if they were still sitting in their living rooms or visiting a neighbor.

One essay is centered around a poverty-stricken tutor Berger had as an adolescent who introduced him to Orwell and the Spanish Civil War. Another describes his attempt to remember the name of an art-school lover by looking up another student from that era who also knew the young women. In the course of the narrative Berger gives us a vivid rendering of the affair, his own nature at that distant point in time (the Blitzkrieg), and also the attempts of the third student, now a professional well along in years, to re-fashion his life following the recent death of his wife. Though Berger has sought out his old friend largely in order to uncover a lost segment of his own past, in Berger's eyes the man is a character no less interesting than anyone else in the tale. It may be another mark of subtly that Berger begins the piece with a discussion of the neighborhood where his friend now lives, Islington, and how it has changed over the years.

The weakest of the pieces, set in Madrid, involves, once again, an old family friend, along with several characters blatantly drawn from Greek myths of the underworld. But the forced and jangling quality of this piece merely underscores the remarkable coherence of the rest of the book. During his long career as an art critic, Berger's has learned to recognize and despise rhetoric in all its forms, and his prose has a simplicity and directness that may tire readers who are yearning for radical mind-bending stuff. In any case, the best (and the longest) piece in Here is Where We Meet is the last, which draws Berger's deep familiarity with the lives of peasants and construction workers into an extended description of a Polish friend's courtship and wedding. The piece is filled with vintage Bergerisms, such as:

[The priest] knew that each marriage at which he officiated had been agreed upon within an intricate web of calculation, desire, fear, bribes and love, for such is the nature of the marriage contract. Each time, however, the task he set himself was to try to locate what was pure in this web. Like a hunter going into the forest, he set out to stalk a purity, to entice it out of its cover and to let all those present, and particularly the couple involved, acknowledge it.

Berger wrote in Photocopies, "Sometimes it seems that, like an ancient Greek, I write mostly about the dead and death. If this is so, I can only add that this is done with a sense of urgency which belongs uniquely to life." It might better be remarked, with respect to Berger's approach to death, that for him, the dead are alive and well, and full of interesting things to say to us all. For Berger the past is neither something to be "worked through" nor escaped. It is simply another ever-present layer of experience. That he feels its presence so strongly may help to explain why his descriptions of seemingly insignificant experiences can rivet our attention—echoes of the unseen are everywhere.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006