The problem is in the deep phoniness of the whole conception: its gross sentimentality (all faceless oppressors and noble peasants); its intoxication with its own portentousness.Sam Leith's review of John Berger's Man Booker Prize longlisted From A to X - the first I've seen - comes as a relief. In the time since reading the novel, I've wondered if I had missed something. Even if the source of his antagonism is the Telegraph's fusty politics, Leith's final line, reminiscent of an impatient blogger, is not unfair. So why on earth has the prize committee chosen this very unsatisfying novel for the longlist? Is it for political or literary reasons?
In the past I've been asked if my own antagonism towards Ian McEwan's fiction is due to one rather than the other but, despite wishing to explain more fully how in this case they're inseparable, I've been unable to swim in the dead sea of Establishment Literary Fiction. However, you won't find Berger dining with Laura Bush at 10 Downing Street. His political commitment is appreciated by Arundhati Roy and Harold Pinter. And, unlike McEwan's stiflingly formal approach, From A to X takes a relatively challenging form, refusing the gifts of elaborate scene setting, characterisation and plot. Perhaps against expectations, this refusal is what makes the novel so easy to read.
The bulk of the book is a collection of short letters to Xavier, a life-term prisoner, from A'ida, his partner on the outside. We're able to read them because, as “J.B.” informs us in the foreword, they were discovered in an otherwise empty cell in a condemned prison. The personal nature of the letters means readers feel at home despite the hasty exit of the hand-holding reporter. An illicit quality to the reading experience remains even after he has, as it were, given permission to read. But there's also an aura of mystery because, as A'ida can assume Xavier's knowledge of family and friends, work and politics, we cannot place them with a definite political arena. We are compelled to withhold judgement as we await a deeper understanding and engagement. For these reasons, each reader becomes a witness to an intimate fortitude and thereby sympathise with A'ida's hopes and fears. However, this has the downside of placing extra pressure on the quality of the letters. Unfortunately, what they lack in a fully-fleshed background, they make up for in weightless anecdotes and vague folk wisdom.
A'ida's first letter opens with a question about her last parcel before moving on swiftly to an evocation of the bucolic ambience of her freedom: a blue sky, a braying donkey, “the rustling noise of a shovel turning cement”. She even adds a postscript about a chameleon climbing down a tree:
They way they can twist their pelvises - their very small pelvises have iliac crests like ours but they swivel differently on the backbone - is comic and handy. They can plant their weight, at the same moment, on a vertical wall and horizontal floor! For negotiating certain difficulties we might learn from them, don't you think?This might be forgiven as a nervous, formal start; perhaps A'ida is unused to writing letters. But this is unlikely for a pharmacist and for someone who uses words like “iliac” and fussily precise adjectives such as “comic and handy”. And the book goes on like this. A'ida begins a letter with another question: “Remember the three pickled snakes in jars in the shop window of the pharmacy?”. The answer is in no doubt because we're soon given more unnecessary detail: “A grass snake, an aspic adder and an adder with a wider mouth.” Another anecdote demonstrating their people's inexhaustible virtue follows. The reader's faith is broken as sweet pity becomes saccharine.
The lack of distance between the qualities and the problems of From A to X suggests a certain amount of authorial trust in the choice of the epistolary form. The explicitly-flagged nobility of these activists against state power must be gained through an equivalent trust from readers; by allowing another to speak without interruption or a given frame, even if it is not a speaking to us. Rational discourse is set aside. Otherness is irreducible even in the free space of the imagination. But here, if the demand for trust is indeed the intention, Berger is asking for too much of the form. The letters comprising Antonio Tabucchi's It's Getting Later All the Time develop a similar aura of smugness around the regular use of the rhetorical "Do you remember...?". The more precarious device Tabucchi uses in his wonderful Declares Pereira (the title-switch here is deliberate by the way) might confirm this. Perhaps aware of the danger, between A'ida's interminable letters Berger scatters notes made by Xavier. These consist of political facts, dreams, anecdotes, quotations and more folk wisdom. In the final note Xavier remarks on the similarity of precariousness of their situation twenty years before and the precariousness of the situation now: "this is strangely reassuring in face of what we are up against today, for it suggests precariousness is our strength." This is perhaps also this fiction's futile hope.