From A To X, by John Berger

A long way from paradise
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John Berger has always defied conventional genres and boundaries, mixing and blurring art criticism and autobiography, poetry and letters, diaries and drawing. His first novel purported to be a diary of a previously undiscovered Hungarian painter; in From A to X, long listed last month for the Booker Prize, prior to publication, he punctuates the story with line sketches of human hands.

This physical quality runs through all his work. As both writer and speaker, he has a unique ability to ruminate out loud, to pay an almost mesmeric attention to the present. This works wonderfully in some recent novels such as To the Wedding or Here Is Where We Meet. Here, he takes us on a spin around the globe and time itself, reflecting on parents, friends, cities, food and art in prose that is as free and fun as the intensely serious Berger gets.

From A to X: A Story in Letters has many of these joyful elements but it is overall far darker and more unsettling in tone. Told through a cache of letters "recuperated by the writer John Berger" from a prison cell, the book recounts the story of A – A'ida, a pharmacist – and X, her insurgent lover, a mechanic, who has been imprisoned for some unspecified political act.

Set in the imaginary town of Suse, a warm, embattled landscape that could be anywhere in the middle East or central America, every page is suffused with a sense of a terrible unnamed threat.

Berger upends conventional assumptions on the causes of conflict. For him, the threat emanates not from some faceless, fundamentalist terrorist waiting to perpetrate violence against the massed ranks of good governments and law abiding citizens but from the defensive and aggressive stance of the globally powerful. His heroes and heroines, the subject of many of his novels and documentary books, are the salt of the earth, those who experience and resist injustice.

A few jottings, apparently left on the backs of A'ida's letters by Xavier, offer fragments of impassioned polemic on the global scandal of wages, weaponry or the rising cost of water. These are very moving.

The biggest frustration of the book, in part the result of the constraints of the letter form, is its lack of narrative drive. A'ida shares the details of her daily life, offering her musings on everything from Canasta (a code, possibly for insurgent activities) to the blossom of almond trees, the feast she prepares for visitors (there's enough food in Berger's books to satisfy Gordon Ramsay) to the strange grief of a friend who thinks she has seen her dead lover on TV.

Like Michael Ondaatje, Berger writes beautifully of daily life and with a rare appreciation of many occupations, including manual work, often neglected in fiction. But, unlike Ondaatje, he has a more limited range, or possibly just less interest in the mechanisms of plot and developing character.

Without this, it's hard to care for, rather than simply admire, strong and suffering A'ida, even though we see her doing good at every turn: she extracts a bullet from the flesh of wounded young man. She takes part in an effective human chain of resistance – led by "the grandmothers" – against an unspecified force, invading by land and air.

None of this makes for an easy read. Perhaps, it shouldn't. Like A'ida and Xavier, we, the readers, are trapped in a stifling continuous present, observers merely of the poetry and politics each create out of their different confinements. A'ida remains admirably steadfast, and unambivalent, in her passion, echoing the novel's poetic key note, "Shakespeare's Sonnet 116": "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks/ But bears it out even to the edge of doom." As so often in Berger, there is an intense idealism about both romantic love and friendship, as if this purity is, in itself, a form of resistance or even activism.

At 82, Berger remains an unashamedly committed novelist. As Geoff Dyer observed in his perceptive 1986 study of the writer, "His belief in socialism animates every line of his work... Like Sartre, he believes that at the heart of the aesthetic imperative there is a moral imperative." It has made him many enemies over the years. Many loathed what they saw as his uncritical Stalinism, although he later repudiated this misguided loyalty, and his decision, after winning the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, to give half the prize money to the Black Panthers.

Berger remains unapologetic about publicly taking sides, in life and art. He once spoke of "feeling so deeply inside me... a gut solidarity with those without power, with the underprivileged." It is this visceral partisanship that gives his best work true greatness, while at the same time opening him to the charge of self righteousness and piety.

Ultimately, From A to X is best understood, like all Berger's best work, as the record of one restless, committed, brilliant consciousness; a late showcase of a mind and sensibility of astonishing range and depth, which should be read as an epic poem or a lyrical essay as much as a novel.

Berger/ A'ida roam without fear across the disciplines, peppering the text with shards of perception. "Expectation belongs to the body, whereas hope belongs to the soul." "The dead put our songs into their pocket of silence and then the silence changes, it's no longer one of distance but of closeness, a shared silence."

In an early essay on Ferdinand Leger, Berger wrote that "in a utopia there would be no need for tenderness, for tenderness is the result of understanding human weakness." From A to X shows us just how far we are from utopia, and how much we still need tenderness and its chroniclers. Towards the end of the book, A'ida adopts a cat that gives her great comfort. Meanwhile, a little white kitten drops into the prison exercise yard, where Xavier and his fellow inmates quickly realise that its back is broken. They persuade the guards to take it inside, where the animal turns on her back. "With her two front paws, she wiped her face, beginning with the ears down to the white mouth, over the eyes. She wiped her eyes as if wiping away the illusions of life, and this done, she was dead... She had escaped."

When death is the welcome way out, we know we have come to a bleak place indeed, however beautifully evoked.

John Berger

John Peter Berger was born in London on November 5, 1926. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time, was published in 1958. After winning the 1972 Booker Prize for his novel G, he caused a scandal by donating half the cash prize to the Black Panther Party. His 1972 book, Ways of Seeing, an influential work of art criticism, was broadcast by the BBC. His new novel, From A to X, is long-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.