Book: A tale of one man and his dogma

Why did this sophisticated thinker create a talking canine? Michael Arditti goes for walkies on the wild side
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The Independent Culture
King: a street story

by John Berger

Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99, 220pp

JOHN BERGER has decreed that his name should not feature on the cover of his new book, billed simply as , as though it had risen unbidden from the stones. In reality, the author's presence is unmistakable, both in its literary sophistication and its social concern. Having explored the plight of the disenfranchised agrarian community in his Into Their Labours trilogy, Berger here turns to their urban counterparts: people who "are being wiped off the earth, not the face of the earth, the face we lost long ago, but the arse of the earth, il culo".

Berger has described himself as "a story-teller not a novelist". The two are obviously not incompatible - every good novel tells a story, however obliquely; and yet the dictionary distinction between story ("a narrative of incidents in their sequence") and novel ("a fictitious narrative presenting a picture of real life, especially of the emotional crises in the life- history of the men and women portrayed") provides a vital clue to Berger's concerns. He is not interested in presenting real life and especially not its emotional crises; nor in psychological subtlety or philosophical speculation. He wants rather to expose the appalling realities for those thrown on the scrap heap - literally, in this case. He wants to reveal the humanity behind the casual label "homeless"; and to show that "home" is not a concept confined to those paying rents and mortgages. And to avert the danger of sentimentality, he makes his narrator a dog.

Given the shopping-trolleys and porcelain bowls which have narrated recent fiction, King seems almost conventional. He is employed, however, in a quite unconventional way. At times, he is able to converse with his friends, Vico and Vica, an elderly couple living rough; at others, he has a more Fred Basset-like relationship to the world, lost in his own wry thoughts. At times, his perceptions are essentially - and charmingly - canine ("Blood isn't a colour, it's a taste, I growled"); at others, they are extremely rarefied, as when he identifies the green of Vica's dress with a Giorgone painting. He converses on equal terms with various creatures, although some readers may find his meeting with a hermit crab ("Call me Torgny"), who "lives with several anemones", to be an anthropomorphism too far.

While King's status is sometimes confusing, his function is clear. He is a latter-day Cerberus guarding this man-made Hades, guiding the reader through its labyrinthine dwellings, and introducing its inhabitants as they go about their daily tasks. He too has known a better life, in which he was a watch-dog at a transit camp near an airport. There, the species barrier was first crossed when a desperate woman engaged him in an act of bestiality.

His current association with humankind is less direct but equally shocking. It possesses a stark metaphorical power, showing that "a dog's life" is not confined to canines. The identification is complete when, in the face of savage repression, the victims begin to bark. King even pictures them as dogs: Danny the terrier; Liberto the Spitz; Jack the Great Dane. Their humanity has finally been destroyed.