Death and the maiden

John Berger's new novel is a simple and affecting essay in humanism. By DJ Taylor; To The Wedding by John Berger Bloomsbury, pounds 13.99
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"I read Mr Berger regularly and esteem his knowledge and candour" Brian Howard informed a friend in the early Fifties, apropos the New Statesman's "committed" young art critic, "but oh dear! How I disagree. If art engage is what he is after I can't have mine degage enough." Presumably Howard would have approved of To The Wedding, Berger's first foray into fiction since the Into Their Labours trilogy: the emphasis here is on effects, not causes, and what emerges is a simple and often highly affecting essay in humanism.

An accompanying puff by Michael Ondaatje - "Wherever I live in the world I know I will have this book with me" - awakens forebodings of thematic excess. Happily, the fear of irretrievable portentousness is extinguished by the novel's low-key but intriguing opening. Berger's narrator - or rather the conduit for his extensive cast - is a blind Athenian seller of lucky charms, whose head acts as a kind of short-wave radio, pulling in a series of voices from across the plains of Europe.

The voices are converging on a wedding in northern Italy. They include the happy couple, Ninon and Gino, Ninon's father Jean, proceeding by motor bike from France, his long-estranged wife Zdena, travelling by coach from Slovakia, and Gino's dad, a brooding scrap-metal merchant named Frederico. A persistent undercurrent of unease, running beneath Ninon's memories of her childhood and the resume of her love affair, breaks above the surface with the revelation that the bride is HIV positive. The wedding ("You'll be marrying a woman, not a virus" Frederico advises) is thus a defiant gesture in the face of looming tragedy.

Impressionistically written, in a style moving ever closer towards poetry, To The Wedding harbours several of the disadvantages associated with this sort of prose. Routine confusion over who exactly is doing the talking alternates with gnomic conversation (" 'If he sells clothes in a street market, I'd have thought he could count.' 'Prices yes, consequences no.' ") and passages of folksy wisdom. Thus, "A mountain is as indescribable as a man, so men give mountains names... Each of the mountains are in the same place. Often they disappear. Sometimes they seem nearer, sometimes far. But they are always in the same place. Their wives and husbands are water and wind."

Charming or faux-naif, depending on your point of view, these descriptions are less enticing than the glimpses of a new Europe sliding into view beyond the windows of Zdena's coach and Jean's handlebars. The faintly mystical air is a constant, though, rather like the river Po whose course Jean follows eastward.

The novel ends with some poignant forecasts of Ninon's decay ("she weighs 17 kilos and her eyes, with their long lashes in their dark hollow sockets, will gaze into his"). The final effect of this series of sharp images - the man on the bike, the wedding party, Ninon dancing - is oddly filmic, the message one about older, elemental patterns weaving stoically through present distress.