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     Volume 7 Issue 35 | August 29, 2008 |

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Book Review

From A to X

David Robson

When John Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972, he donated half his winnings to the Black Panthers. It is not clear who would benefit this time round in the event of a recurrence. The organisers of the prize, though, probably greeted the appearance of Berger's name on this year's longlist with a degree of trepidation.

From A to X is a slight, fugitive work, but encompasses moments of rare poignancy. In old age, after years on the cutting edge on literature, Berger has reverted to that most traditional of forms: the epistolary novel.

The A of the title is A'ida, a pharmacist in a small town. The X to whom she writes letters is her lover Xavier, a political prisoner, serving two life sentences. What has he done? Will A'ida be arrested too? What further outrages is the regime planning? What is the regime? In what country, continent, is all this happening?

Berger, wisely, answers none of those questions. There are odd darts at Uncle Sam, odd reminders of the sorry state our planet is in if 1,000 million people have no access to clean drinking water.

Occasional shows of military force - tanks, helicopters - reinforce the impression of a population under siege. But this is not, by and large, a political work.

Its themes are quotidian and universal. The voice of A'ida - we only have her letters, plus a small number of jottings by Xavier - warbles through it like a bird, free, uncaged, singing of life beyond the prison walls.

Two women sit shelling beans. A dog sniffs around in the dirt. There is a sound of accordion music, then a clumsy attempt to dance. Even the upholstery of an old chair reveals a rich silken pattern, a riot of colour.

In the small change of daily life - the fruit arriving in the market, the letters slipped under the front door, the smiles exchanged between strangers - there is a sense of connectedness, of everyone belonging to the same shared story.

'The ephemeral is not the opposite of the eternal,' A'ida writes. 'The opposite of the eternal is the forgotten.' Her determination that her imprisoned lover should not forget the sweets of the outside world gives her letters a thrilling urgency. It is the perfect retort to the unseen forces of authoritarianism that have deprived him of his liberty.

This review first appeared in The Telegraph.

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