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

"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.

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album