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ONCE IN EUROPE by John Berger


by John Berger

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1987
Publisher: Pantheon

This second volume in Berger's projected trilogy on French peasant life (the first, Pig Earth, was published in 1980) comprises four short stories dealing with love, loss, solitude and survival. Three of these stories show us the farmers and shepherds of the French Alps, their lives molded by the land they work. "The Accordion Player" is a vignette of the middle-aged Felix, racked by a sense of loss after his mother's death—his mother, who was also his co-worker. While Felix had his mother's love, Boris (in "Boris is Buying Horses") has nothing except his ambition until his infatuation with a married blonde. "On this inhospitable earth he had found, at the age of forty-one, a shelter." But the blonde has her own program, and Boris dies destitute. Marius (in "Time of the Cosmonauts") is not much luckier. The old farmer intrigues the fiercely independent Danielle, 50 years his junior; but his need is so great that he scares her away. . .into marriage to a young woodcutter. Finally, in the longer title story, the farm is a puny thing in the shadow of a huge ferro-manganese factory. The protagonist Odile, as self-assured as Danielle, moves onto company property when she is 17 to cohabit with her Russian lover, who is killed in an industrial accident before he can make good on his promise to marry her. Though Odile's loss is the most terrible, she transcends it in a way denied to the men: she gives birth to their child. At the close, hang gliding with her now grown son, her transcendence has become literal. These peasants' search for shelter is marked by haunting images of their need: Felix weeping at the kitchen table, Marius howling a proclamation of his manhood to the mountains. What gives the stories their additional quality of surprise is Berger's generous humanist vision, which allows for the possibility of transcendence, and even of miracles. His trilogy moves serenely forward.