Champagne for the health of the bride

TO THE WEDDING by John Berger, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
JOHN BERGER's G, a bold, experimental novel about sex which won the 1972 Booker Prize, established the author as one of British fiction's most innovative voices. This was confirmed throughout the Eighties with the appearance of Into Their Labours, a trilogy mixing fact and fiction, and based on his life in a peasant community in the Haute-Savoie.

Now nearly 70, Berger has come up with a book almost as surprising as G. Shorter, less aggressively experimental, To The Wedding reads like a cry from the heart. It is really a prose-poem, the text weaving in and out of different voices, each telling different stories - Berger has always been driven by the primacy of story-telling - and built around one central tragedy: a young woman contracts Aids through a casual sexual encounter.

The tale is told backwards by a blind seer, a Greek seller of talismans in an Athens market. Ninon, the daughter of an Italian railwayman, Jean Ferrero, is terminally ill; her father motorcycles with her to Greece to be with her after her wedding. The talisman he buys for her, a tama, is a blessing for the health each knows Ninon cannot recover.

That is the oblique, and bleak, opening. Homerically, Ninon's story is told through what the unnamed principal narrator can "hear" - right across Europe, indeed - rather than "see": a phone conversation about champagne for the wedding, between Jean (in the French Alps, where he works) and Ninon's future father-in-law near Ferrara, the tinkling of piano music in a Bratislava flat where Ninon's mother Zdena lives.

Much of the novel is concerned with travel: Jean's trip across the Alps, Zdana's from Slovakia to meet her former husband on the River Po, both knowing their daughter will die young, and Ninon's own journey - from youth and sexual impetuosity to a terrible state of self-knowledge. Though the three central characters are experiencing a bitter tragedy, the tone is elegiac rather than doom-laden, the colours and textures far from stygian.

And Berger's Europe is precisely painted, never melodramatic: "Along the Po there is such a heaviness in the air that the swallows are flying at knee level to collect the weighed-down insects." Zdena's coach rolls by "greens, poppy reds, mustard yellow. Hill gives way to hill, and the far ones are lavender-coloured. They pass lorries from Istanbul and Sofia. Up by the windowscreen the light dazzles as from a hundred keyrings."

To The Wedding is full of such picture-painting, and peopled by an engagingly odd assortment: a bunch of computer-hackers with whom Jean camps down one night, a bald fellow-Bratislavan Zdena sits next to on the coach who comforts her with meandering stories from the encyclopaedia he edits, and Gino, a young, fishing-obsessed Italian from whom Ninon first thinks she has caught Aids (in fact it was a cook and ex-con), and who selflessly marries her.

Inevitably the climax of the novel is their wedding, a lovingly described, self-indulgent fete champetre spread over the last 30 pages of the book. At times too juicy and jolly to be quite real, the eating and dancing are nonetheless intercut with moving premonitions of Ninon's illness. Berger's seer knows what's coming, and pens a bucolic epithalamium shot through with the imagery of contemporary sorrow.

"Aids novels" risk mawkishness, stretching the boundaries of sentimentality. Berger is too good a writer for that; he makes his novel one about crossing other kinds of boundaries - cultural, historical, geographical - without losing focus on the desperate medical condition at its heart.