One of the most widely admired writers of our time returns us to the captivating play and narrative allure of his previous novels--G. and To the Wedding among them--with a shimmering fiction drawn from chapters of his own life.
One hot afternoon in Lisbon, our narrator, John, finds his mother, who had died fifteen years earlier, seated on a park bench. "The dead don't stay where they are buried," she tells him. And so begins a remarkable odyssey, told in simple yet gorgeous prose and with the openness to personal and political currents that has always marked John Berger's work.
Having promised his mother that he will henceforth pay close attention to the dead, John takes us to a woman's bed during the 1943 bombardment of London, to a Polish market where carrier pigeons are sold, to a Paleolithic cave, to the Ritz Hotel in Madrid. Along the way, we meet an English aristocrat who always drives barefoot, a pedophile schoolmaster, a Spanish sculptor who cheats at poker, and Rosa Luxemburg, among other long-gone presences, and John lets us choose to love each of them as much as he still does.
This is a unique literary journey in which a writer's life and work are inseparable: a fiction but not a conventional novel, a narration in the author's voice but not a memoir, a portrait that moves freely through time and space but never loses its foothold in the present, a confession that brings with it not regret but a rich deepening of sensual and emotional understanding.
Lisbon is to Mother as Geneva is to Borges? Berger's elegiac gathering of semi-autobiographical vignettes seems at first to propose an elegant, somewhat chilly game of linking European cities to their dead. But as the table of correspondences broadens to include a formerly unhip London neighborhood, a French Cro-Magnon cave site, two rivers at opposite ends of a continent and a woman nicknamed Clarinette, it gets harder and harder to identify which of Berger's equally vivid characters exists only in memory. Most poignantly, in a section centered on the tiny Ching and Szum rivers of England and Poland as remembered by his father, Berger juxtaposes a boyhood spent at the edges of his father's WWI trauma with a contemporary portrait of a friend from Galicia, Danka, who lives exuberantly, meets her husband-to-be in Paris and gives birth to a son, Olek; threaded throughout are Berger's preparations as he cooks for their visit. Berger (Ways of Seeing) will be 80 next year; a mammoth collection of his essays was published in 2001. With its clarity and beautifully proportioned contours of fictive memory, this book makes the perfect site to encounter Berger for the first or 50th time. (Aug. 9)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 08, 2005
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Excerpt from Here Is Where We Meet by John Berger
In the centre of a square in Lisboa there is a tree called a Lusitanian (which is to say, Portuguese) cypress. Its branches, instead of pointing up to the sky, have been trained to grow outwards, horizontally, so that they form a gigantic, impenetrable, very low umbrella with a diameter of twenty metres. One hundred people could easily shelter under it. The branches are supported by metal props, arranged in circles around the twisted massive trunk; the tree is at least two hundred years old. Beside it stands a formal notice-board with a poem to passers-by written on it.
I paused to try to decipher a few lines:
... I am the handle of your hoe, the gate of your house, the wood of your cradle and the wood of your coffin...
Elsewhere in the square chickens were pecking for worms on the unkempt grass. At several tables men were playing sueca, each one selecting and then placing his card on the table with an expression that combined wisdom and resignation. Winning here was a quiet pleasure.
It was hot -- perhaps 28 C -- at the end of the month of May. In a week or two, Africa, which begins -- in a manner of speaking -- on the far bank of the Tagus, would begin to impose a distant yet tangible presence. An old woman with an umbrella was sitting very still on one of the park benches. She had the kind of stillness that draws attention to itself. Sitting there on the park bench, she was determined to be noticed. A man with a siotcase walked through the square with the air of going to a rendezvous he kept every day. Afterwards a woman carrying a little dog in her arms -- both of them looking sad -- passed, heading down towards the Avenida da Liberdade. The old woman on the bench persisted in her demonstrative stillness. To whom was it addressed?
Abruptly, as I was asking myself this question, she got to her feet, turned and, using her umbrella like a walking stick, came towards me.
I recognised her walk, long before I could see her face. The walk of somebody already looking forward to arriving and sitting down. It was my mother.
It happens sometimes in my dreams that I have to phone my parents' flat, in order to tell them -- or to ask them to tell somebody else -- that I'm likely to be late, because I've missed a connection. I want to warn them that I'm not, at that moment, where I'm meant to be. The details vary from dream to dream, but the gist of what I have to tell them remains the same. What also remains the same is that I don't have my address book with me, and, although I attempt to remember their telephone number and try out several, I never find the right one. This corresponds with the truth that in my waking life I have forgotten the telephone number of the flat in which my parents lived for twenty years and which I once knew by heart. What, however, I forget in my dreams is that they are dead. My father died twenty-five years ago and my mother ten years later.
In the square, she took my arm and by common consent we crossed the street and walked slowly towards the top of the Mae d'Agua staircase.
There's something, John, you shouldn't forget -- you forget too much. The thing you should know is this: the dead don't stay where they are buried.
As she began talking, she didn't look at me. She looked concentratedly at the ground a few metres ahead of us. She was worried about tripping.
I'm not talking about heaven. Heaven is all very well, but I happen to be talking about something different!
She paused and chewed as if one of the words had gristle on it and needed more chewing before being swallowed. Then she went on:
The dead when they're dead can choose where they want to live on Earth, always supposing they decide to stay on the Earth.
You mean they come back to some place where they were happy when they were alive?
We were by now at the top of the stairway and with her left hand she took hold of the rail.
You think you know the answers, you always did. You should have listened more to your father.
He had answers to many things. I see that today.
We took three steps down.
Your dear father was a man full of doubts, that's why I had to be behind him all the while.
To rub his back?
Amongst other things, yes.
Another four steps. She took her hand off the rail.
How do the dead choose where they want to stay?
She didn't answer, instead she gathered up her skirt and sat down on the next step of the staircase.
I've chosen Lisboa! she said, as if repeating something very obvious.
Did you ever come here -- I hesitated, for I didn't want to make the distinction too blatant -- before?
Again she ignored the question. If you want to find out something I didn't tell you, she said, or something you've forgotten, this is the time and place to ask me.
You told me so little, I observed.
Anybody can tell! Tell! Tell! I did something else. She looked demonstratively into the distance, towards Africa on the other side of the Tagus.