John Berger’s A to X reviewed, with a nod to Robert Newman’s The Fountain at the Center of the World; and The Grapes of Wrath in context today:
From A to X: A Story in Letters by John Berger
John Berger published his first novel A Painter of Our Time half a century ago. Since then, he has become one of the most prominent public intellectuals in Britain, working as a novelist, art critic, essayist, screenwriter, dramatist and painter.
Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972 and From A To X, his first novel in nine years, has just been long-listed for this year’s Booker.
At a slight 224 pages, the book tells the story of A’ida and her lover Xavier. The latter has been locked up for “being a founder member of a terrorist network,” according to Berger’s clever framing introduction. The novel is made up of letters – sometimes sent, sometimes not – written by A’ida to Xavier and occasional short notes made by Xavier on the back of A’ida’s letters.
Working as a pharmacist, A’ida observes and writes about her own tight-knit community, which we soon learn is under military and economic occupation by an unknown force. Apache helicopters and drones circle menacingly overhead, tanks thunder down streets, curfews are imposed and soldiers raid houses during the night, executing alleged insurgents at will.
Although very brief, Xavier’s notes suggest a radical global South activist/fighter imprisoned by a frightened military dictatorship. Citing Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, Frantz Fanon, Eduardo Galeano and Subcomandante Marcos, with whom Berger has corresponded, Xavier rails against “imperialism, capitalism, slavery” and their modern masks, “globalisation, free market, natural order.”
Ultimately, though, this is a disappointing and strangely unmoving read. The limits of the novel’s unusual structure are often painfully clear – there is a complete lack of narrative tension and regular, awkward passages that are clearly written for the reader’s benefit, rather than the intimate thoughts of separated loved ones.
In addition, A’ida’s letters, which are supposed to be profound musings on life, longing and resistance, often come across as embarrassingly pretentious waffle.
Rather than ploughing through From A To X, readers of fiction who are interested in neoliberal imperialism and the global South’s response to it would do better to pick up a copy of Robert Newman’s marvellously inspiring The Fountain At The Centre Of The World.
by Rick Wartzman
Nearly 70 years after it was published, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” — which tells of the dirt-poor Joad family’s epic migration from drought-plagued Oklahoma to fruitful (if unfriendly) Central California — continues to resonate as few novels have. In fact, the book may well be more relevant today than at any time since it first appeared in April 1939.
“The Grapes of Wrath” always has been extraordinarily popular. More than 400,000 copies flew off the shelves its first year in print, making it the nation’s No. 1 seller. So powerful was Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Joads’ plight that people began referring to the fictional clan as if it were real. “Meet the Joad Family,” read one newspaper headline. “What’s Being Done About the Joads?” asked another. “The Joads on Strike,” declared a third.
Before long, thanks in part to Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad on the big screen and Woody Guthrie crooning about the Joads in his “Dust Bowl Ballads,” Steinbeck’s characters had become permanently etched into popular culture. When Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine sang about “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” legions of fans already were tuned in to the generations-old reference.
Indeed, wherever people exhibit tremendous strength amid terrible anguish, the Joads are a potent symbol. “I suspect I met a few Ma Joads and Tom Joads in Kabul,” said Afghanistan-born author Khaled Hosseini as he described the process that led him to write “The Kite Runner.”
Yet these days, especially, it’s more than just the Joads’ strength in the face of adversity that makes “The Grapes of Wrath” so pertinent — and poignant. Steinbeck’s story echoes particularly loudly because, just as in 1939, the deficiencies of an unfettered free market are so plainly on display.