Champagne for the health of the bride

TO THE WEDDING by John Berger, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'