Book review: 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."

Xavier’s isolation in jail and A’ida’s imprisonment in the wider world initially bring to mind south American films such as Hector Babenco’s Kiss Of The Spider Woman or Costa Gavras’s State Of Siege.

However, other parts of the novel, such as the passage describing a group of women acting as human shields to protect a house from missile attack, point to the Palestinian experience.

This attempt to pinpoint the exact geographical location of story is redundant. A’ida and Xavier’s story is, of course, the story of every dispossessed people currently struggling against violent established power.

From A To X is an enigmatic work, full of controlled, precise prose, with much – as would be expected of letters sent to a dissident in prison – left unsaid.

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. 

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