Thursday, August 27, 2009


From A to X

Earlier this summer I read From A to X: A Story in Letters, a novel by John Berger published by Verso Books in 2008. I've read much of Berger's art criticism over the years (and wrote a little about it previously in this blog, here) -- Berger is the only art critic I've been able to read more than a page of, let alone whole books. This is the first of his fiction I've read.

From A to X is written as a series of letters from a woman, A'ida, to her lover Xavier who has been sentenced to prison for two life sentences for his political activities (political activities in which A'ida is also involved). Interspersed among the letters are comments Xavier has written on the back of the pages of some of the letters. The tone is alternately lyrical, journalistic, passionate, heartbreaking, stubbornly committed.

"I've been seeing Soko a lot these days. Her nephew has disappeared without a trace. Her sister-in-law is dying in hospital. Her husband's taxi cracked up, so he's not earning, and Soko's sewing takes much longer now, and she can't take on more because her eyesight is failing, and she needs a cataract operation which she'll never be able to afford.

She laments every evening and God knows she has reason enough, and in her nightly lamentation all the misfortunes become equal so she can weave them together as strands in the same continuous prayer asking God to forgive and have mercy on her, Amen.

And this evening while she was lamenting, I thought: if only it was you listening to her! You would show her how to separate her complaints out, and then examine them, one by one, to decide what can be changed and what can't be changed."

In the novel, A'ida works as a pharmacist, in a kind of improvised neighborhood pharmacy, in a city under intermittent political and military siege. Occasionally in her letters, when the threads of the story lead to it, she talks compellingly about the capabilities of one medication or another. Xavier is a mechanic, skilled at fixing machines, and knows how to fly an airplane. In his comments on the back of A'ida's letters he sometimes gives statistics and bits of news about the economy and politics of the world; occasionally he describes in detail the interminable routines of prison life, the limits of the tiny space where he and the other prisoners are confined.

A'ida recounts a visit by Manda, "immense Manda, the music teacher":

"She hasn't changed much. Her shock of hair is dyed black and she still shakes it in the same way. Her dark eyes still alter their size dramatically, according to what she's hearing. What's new is that she has learnt to play the lute.

I'm not certain of the details. She pretends that playing a lute can give her an entry to somewhere she wants to be. Some institution. Some committee. Maybe some building. So she took lessons.

The lute is like no other instrument, she says. As soon as you hug a lute, it becomes a man! You're playing a man. You feel it immediately. You pluck the strings--seven, thirteen, or twenty-one according to your taste--you pluck the strings of his chest, his neck, his shoulders. A lute's music is male, male. You remember all the men you've ever played.

With her thick arms she imitates the gestures of playing a trombone, of making a trumpet call, of hiding a mouth-organ against the mouth, of wheedling a cello. There's a kind of turtle without a shell, she goes on, who's called a lute, because he's beautiful and has the same shape as the musical instrument! But who wants to play turtles, when you can play a man?"

In the time scale encompassed by the novel, A'ida apparently continues writing to Xavier, and going about the details of life, over a period of at least some years. A'ida can't visit Xavier in prison, no possibility of it, because they're not married; their requests for permission to marry are repeatedly denied by the government. In her letters she reports news of the world, the events in the lives of people they both know, the people in her life. Occasionally she makes a reference to playing cards (specifically canasta); in a kind of brief author's preface, Berger suggests that the mentions of card games are coded references to political activities. "I doubt," writes Berger, "whether she played canasta."

Here and there A'ida briefly mentions a letter she's received from Xavier, though his letters are not included as part of the novel, only his sometime comments on the back of A'ida's letters. Though it's obvious that they miss each other profoundly, at no point does either of them seem to lose heart; their abiding love for each other sustains them with no end. They never lose hope of seeing each other again.

"One by one the birds appeared; they didn't fly into the tree, they appeared on its branches like prayers. Gassan's house was destroyed by a missile, aimed, they claim, at a hide-out! The birds perched there on the branches of the apple tree like answers, answers to questions which have no words. Watching the birds, I finally cried.

Gassan wasn't there when his house was destroyed. He had gone to the market and was playing cards with some cronies. When he heard the news, he foundered and fell to the floor, making no sound.

The next day I accompanied him to the ruin. There were several epicentres where everything had been reduced to dust, surrounded by tiny fragments. Except for pipes and wires no recognisable objects remained. Everything which had been assembled during a lifetime had gone without trace, had lost its name. An amnesia not of the mind but of the tangible.

He walked several hundred meters down the road to one of the ancient ruins, where a window-frame was still a window-frame, even if there was no glass, and a chair was still a chair with two legs missing. There he found in an outhouse what he was looking for--a broom.

Then we returned to what a few days before had been his home and he began to sweep, looking not at his feet but into the distance. My instinct was not to interfere, and to treat him as if he were a sleepwalker. I'm not sure how long it went on. It covered a lifetime."

The specific location of the events in the novel is kept a little vague; much of the description suggests the middle east, possibly Palestine, though never comes right out and says. The names of people in the novel are likewise various, suggesting many parts of the world, names that sounded (to my ear) Arabic, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, possibly from places in Africa, and elsewhere. I'm sure Berger did this intentionally, to avoid seeming to suggest that the political and economic conditions the novel depicts are limited to any particular city or country or region or population. Beginning her letters, A'ida variously addresses Xavier as Mi Soplete, Ya Nour, Mi Guapo, Kanadim, My on-the-ground-lion (a literal translation from Greek, she says, of "chameleon") and other names.

All of the lives and scenes in the novel are of daily life of people without money or property wealth, without institutional political power. The wealthy and powerful of the world appear in the novel only as distant and indifferent instigators of the catastrophic events that disrupt and cut short the lives of the billions of the earth.

A few of A'ida's letters are marked "letter not sent;" withheld by her presumably because they contained political statements or accounts that it would be too dangerous to send in a police state. Although From A to X doesn't have a plot or storyline in the conventional sense, though in one of the letters (one that's marked "not sent"), A'ida tells of joining a large number of women in the city who have gathered, facing down army tanks and helicopters, forming a human wall, defiant and singing, around a building where several members of the resistance movement are sheltered. This scene makes a kind of climactic moment in the novel.

From A to X is one of the few novels I've read in which the people in it reminded me of people I actually know. I loved reading it. I didn't want it to end.

A'ida visits a bakery she hasn't been in before. Telling about it in a letter she writes:

"You are not outside on the road because you never were. You are in your cell no. 73.

So I walk up the hill alone, wondering what you'll make of the story. I have completely forgotten the biscuits.

When I get home I put on some water to boil to make tea and then I remember them. I unwrap one. Oval and the colour of baked bread. The size of a tongue. Yours or mine. Polvoron Artesano de Almendra. A slight smell of cinnamon. Weight 32 gr. each. I take a small bite for both of us. The baked wheat flour and almond dust, sweet and a little greasy, lines the top of the palette, it sticks tot he curved roof of the mouth, whilst below, on the floor, on our tongue lie tiny fragments of roasted nut to shift between the teeth to bite into.

Munching a Biblia is like pulling an almond blanket over our two heads to keep out sand, rain, the wind or the probing searchlight from the mirador.

He gave us 12. 6 for me, 6 for you if they reach you. If they don't, remember I've taken you inside my mouth.


Last week I was in Suse. And I stood under the same street lamps you'll walk under when you come out. Everything looked broken except the miradors and barbed wire. Everything looked makeshift."

And Xavier's comment, written on the back of the letter:

"All usurpers do their utmost to make us forget that they have only just arrived.

To glimpse the sky I climb above the bunk. The sky is a reminder of what may be temporarily forgotten--e.g. the private equity funds available for financial speculation are today worth 20 times more than the sum total of the world's gross national product!

The wind, rendered gently visible by the clouds, is enough to suggest how the time of such illusions is running out."

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