One of the books which shaped my political outlook as a teenager was John Berger’s groundbreaking study, Ways of Seeing. Over the decades he has followed this seminal work with a steady stream of novels, poetry, polemic and works that transcend boundaries. He won the Booker Prize for his novel G in 1972 (and famously gave half the prize money to the Black Panther Movement) and his work has often tackled the plight of refugees and the rural poor. Now in his eighties, Berger’s writing is as strong and passionate as it ever was and his latest novel, From A to X, is a heartrending love-story and a searing indictment of authoritarianism in all its forms.
The novel is set in a nameless oppressive state and it takes the form of a series of letters, spanning years if not decades, from A’ida to her lover Xavier, who is in prison for subversive activities. We do not see Xavier’s replies but do get to see pithy, scribbled comments and social observations by him, written on the backs of A’ida’s letters. This dialectic between her descriptions of the daily grind and small victories of her life and his acerbic and starkly political viewpoint is highly effective and deeply moving. We are confronted with the loss and separation endured by all prisoners – from Mandela to the wretched inhabitants of Guantánamo Bay – but are also reminded that strong bonds of love and solidarity can overcome tyranny. This is a beautiful, poetic hymn to the human spirit that will live long in the minds of all who read it.