Discrete scenes from a mellow, largely autobiographical journey through time and space.
Barriers collapse as the past invades the present and the dead mingle with the living in this distinguished European’s latest fiction. European, yes, because Berger (The Shape of a Pocket, 2001, etc.), an expatriate Englishman long resident in France, has the appropriate historical consciousness and breadth of vision—his journey here includes stops in Lisbon, Geneva, Krakow, London and Madrid. But it’s the dead who make the story so singular, especially Berger’s mother, who shows up in Lisbon, out of the blue. In appearance an old woman (she’s been dead ten years), she speaks at times with the coquettish voice of a 17-year-old. She and Berger exchange memories while shopping in a beautifully evoked Lisbon. “I’ve learnt a lot since my death,” she says teasingly, and the idea that the dead have a better perspective than mere mortals seems self-evident. Berger’s father doesn’t appear in person, but the son recalls their contentious relationship, softened by Berger the child’s intuitive understanding of the WWI ghosts haunting his father, a former infantry officer. The dead are everywhere. In a Krakow marketplace, Berger finds Ken, his greatest childhood influence and passeur (guide), while down the staircase of a Madrid hotel comes another teacher, the intensely solitary Tyler. There are certain key concepts here: endurance is one, invincibility another. The closing section is given over to the living, as an old friend brings his bride to the family home in the Polish countryside. Berger does weddings well (see To The Wedding, 1995), but one misses the dead; nothing else quite equals that opening Lisbon section, the raillery of dead mother and living son, the powerful demonstration that “everything is a continuum.”
Berger also treats us to reflections on Borges (buried in Geneva), Rembrandt’s Polish Rider, the Cro-Magnon and nights of innocent, unconsummated passion with a fellow art student as the bombs fell over wartime London. His endless curiosity restores the spirits.