John Berger, From A to X: A Story in Letters (Verso, 2008)
The setup is simple. One prison closes, another opens. The prisoners are transferred. A packet of letters is found. Well, three packets. You’re sure the rules of the game are simple but they remain perpetually obscure. The letters aren’t in chronological order. Some were sent to Xavier, the prisoner; some were never mailed. “A’ida obviously chose not to refer in her letters to her ongoing life as an activist,” John Berger tells us in his introduction. “Occasionally, however, she couldn’t resist what I suspect to be a reference. This is how I interpret her remarks about playing canasta. I doubt whether she played canasta.” And so even the simplest acts—fixing a chair, ironing a shirt—are infused with mystery. The result, Berger’s From A to X: A Story in Letters, is rich and allusive, elusive and frustrating.
Reading the letters, you plot coordinates in time and space; words signal when and where: mobiles, F-16s, Evo, Chavez. Humvees, Apaches, and Predators—the current vocabulary of war and occupation. Some feel like red herrings—a reference to Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan dissident disappeared in Paris back in ’65. But even these compel you to unearth bits and pieces of the not-so-secret history, driving you to the reference books, or at least Wikipedia. You search for the names of barely familiar places which may or may not exist: Sennacherib (the ancient Assyrian ruler built a palace at Nineveh, near what is now Mosul); the River Zab, a tributary of the Tigris; the prison at Suse. The last is the first mentioned, the prison where Xavier is detained, “accused of being a founding member of a terrorist network.” In 2005, the United States opened Fort Suse, a prison to hold detainees being relocated from Abu Ghraib.
So the narrative may be set in Iraq, although A’ida seems to suggest Xavier has been imprisoned for 2,126 days—nearly six years—which would either mean he was detained under Saddam or that at least some of the letters were written in the all-too-near future. Berger dares you to feel sympathy for the dead-enders, the insurgents with whom we’re told there’s no negotiating. It’s a miracle Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan haven’t rallied the flash mob.
Berger’s afforded himself a measure of plausible denial by being as cagey as he is about where the novel takes place. It’s beneath him; in his critical writing (and even in From A to X) he has railed against the way in which capital and global markets obliterate the local, and everywhere becomes nowhere. Removing A’ida and Xavier from context, he blunts the force of their critique.
The flaws of the method are obvious: “Inshallah” is written once, in passing. A’ida’s letters are at times sexually frank. Martyrdom, infidels—these words are never used. Would the alleged founder of a “terrorist network” in Iraq quote Chavez and Evo? Would his lover refer to him as “soplete” (Spanish for blowtorch) or “compañero?” If all this reeks of a romanticized notion of the resistance, the sort of ideological sympathy that might’ve made resisting the war easier, can anyone say there’s no one in Iraq who speaks or thinks or writes in these terms?
This is the essential task of the novel: placing the reader in another person’s head. In a word, empathy. You trace the lost time A’ida and Xavier suffer, “the pains we don’t want to reduce,” the life they might have shared, the way they are slowly, inevitably becoming strangers to each other. “From my name to your name,” she closes one of her letters, and it’s at once a recognition of both his and her own irreplaceable individuality and a subtle acknowledgment of their enforced estrangement.
Many of her letters recount the banal, everyday moments denied to the prisoner. Only once is this unforgivable, when Berger incorporates the tired bit in which a man and an angel trace their footprints in the sand: ‘Why do my footprints stop?’ ‘That’s when I carried you!’ (If you want us to perceive your characters as susceptible to greeting card kitsch, there are better ways to do it.) But even this doesn’t go without justification: we only glimpse Xavier’s footsteps, in brief notes included among the letters.
A’ida’s letters are punctuated with sketches, almost always of hands. Which is what you must miss most, after all: her touch, his feel. A presence unmediated by words. Drawing is pre-verbal; here it’s a way of escape. In one letter A’ida remembers watching Xavier’s hands as he repaired a printer: “Let’s try this, you whispered. And suddenly I took in that with manmade machines there are circuits of ingenuity which can be shared between minds. Like poetry is shared. I saw this in the backs of your hands.” It’s the poetry Berger is really talking about; the circuits of ingenuity the reader searches for, which the novel is meant to share. And so the reader’s active involvement in the text—playing canasta (so to speak), sorting the order of the letters, locating them in time and space—becomes yet another way of encouraging empathy.
“I’ll read you some lines then without translating,” A’ida relates being told by a young man who’s probably involved in the resistance. (Excuse me, insurgency—fascinating how completely the latter has supplanted the former in our discourse, and its consequences for our capacity for empathy.) “You’ll hear the secret and it’ll still be a secret.” Berger has pulled off a similar trick. You know you’ve just been told a secret but you’re not quite sure what it is.
The portraits printed on the book’s endpapers might be a hint. One of a man, one of a woman, they seem about A’ida and Xavier’s ages. But however contemporary they appear, the paintings are actually nearly two millennia old. These are two of the Fayum Portraits, some of the earliest paintings to survive to the present day. As Berger notes in an essay on the subject, they were intended to be buried along with the sitter, not mounted above the mantle or gazed at in galleries. I can’t see any way around quoting from his take at length:
The sitter had not yet become a model, and the painter had not yet become a broker for future glory. Instead, the two of them, living at that moment, collaborated in a preparation for death, a preparation which would ensure survival. To paint was to name, and to be named was a guarantee of this continuity.
In other words, the Fayum painter was summoned not to make a portrait, as we have come to understand the term, but to register his client, a man or a woman, looking at him. It was painter rather than the ‘model’ who submitted to being looked at. Each portrait he made began with this act of submission. We should consider these works not as portraits, but as paintings about the experience of being looked at by Aline, Flavian, Isarous, Claudine.
These paintings aren’t concerned with reproducing an exact likeness, with getting the details right; they are instead focused on reproducing the sensation of another person’s presence, the tenor of an actual interaction. And so this is a novel about the experience of being written to by A’ida. A preparation for death. A guarantee of continuity in the face of regime change and occupation and displacement and detention. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have done time in our gulag. Some 14,000 are still there. In May of 2006, five escaped from Fort Suse.
Speaking about the war in Vietnam a year before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “There will be no meaningful solution, until some attempt is made to know these people and hear their broken cry.” For all its flaws, From A to X nevertheless makes this noble attempt.