From A to X, By John Berger

This political epistolary novel exists in a vacuum

John Berger's output is erratic in quality. At best and most brilliant it is challenging, philosophical, deeply intellectual. At worst, though, Berger's prose can be wearily self-derivative; unfortunately, this new novel falls into the latter category.

A and X are A'ida and Xavier, two separated lovers. Xavier is serving a life sentence for terrorism. Their only contact is via the letters she sends, with his responses written on the reverse of her pages. The geographical and temporal location of the story is unclear; from A'ida's name, and the reproductions of the famous Coptic grave portraits from El Fayum on the end papers, Egypt is a fair indication, although the pet names A'ida uses, "mi Guapo" for example, imply a different origin. Specific context is, however, perhaps less important than the generic backdrop of a military dictatorship. The oppressors are faceless, descending in a whirr of Apache helicopters like birds of prey. Those they oppress are without qualification pious, fatalistic, humourless.

Xavier and A'ida themselves appear unremarkable; their circumstances should, but do not, render them extraordinary. Her letters resemble internal monologues, longings for Xavier occasionally flashing out amidst the unchecked rumination. Some darker soliloquies remain unsent. His replies are factual, angry. Neither seems to relate to the other, as if the two are writing in a vacuum. Punctuation and syntax are idiosyncratic with, in A'ida's case, an excess of exclamation marks; in Xavier's a rant of acronyms. The random sequencing of the letters, though purposeful, confuses.

Where Berger delights is with descriptions of colour and of movement. A'ida sends "the blue of small ripe plums" to her lover; Xavier's mother bequeaths a cherished lazarite ring to A'ida, and Xavier, in turn, imagines her, surrounded by the sky's "non-stop" blue. A'ida and a female friend settle their differences by engaging in a solemn tango. Most lovely is a rhapsodic passage based on the Song of Solomon, but these instances are rare. Berger is an exceptional writer; this is a disappointingly meagre addition to a lifetime's work.