Once in Europa
In an age dominated by the products and devices of an advanced industrial economy, the power of the primitive exerts a special appeal. In recent memory, Paul Gauguin’s voyage to Polynesia, D. H. Lawrence’s pilgrimage to unspoiled landscape, and the entire “back-to-the-land” movement of the 1960’s counterculture stand as examples of an almost instinctive return to a wilderness in which the corruption of the cities is absent. The original concept of “America” as an Edenic garden began to take shape in the European spiritus mundi at least as far back in history as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the succeeding centuries of war, overcrowding, industrial blight, and ecological ravages have accelerated a process which has threatened the existence of the countryside as a living essence to counterbalance the worst features of an urban wasteland.
John Berger, a sophisticated art historian, aesthetician, screenwriter, novelist, essayist, and political theoretician, has turned his attention to one of Europe’s few remaining areas of relatively untouched country, the French Alpine villages near Switzerland, to demonstrate the cost in human and environmental terms of the worst features of Western capitalism. Reared and educated in Great Britain, Berger has been quite successful in conventional literary and academic pursuits, winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, but his socialist convictions have led him toward the explicit practice of his principles in the specific details of his life and art. Accordingly, he has settled in a small village in the French Alps, living “in search for the French peasant in himself,” as he composes the volumes of a trilogy called Into Their Labours, a work designed to display the essential value of a way of life he regards as unique, instructive, and in danger of extinction. The first book in the series, Pig Earth (1979), is an unusual hybrid, an anthropological novel whose aim “is to recreate the texture of a living peasant world.” Berger recognizes the emptiness of much academic writing—removed by a vast intellectual gulf from its subject and patronizing in its theoretical, risk-free posturing—and sees as well the necessity for rendering in imaginative literature the ideas he wishes to promote. What might be desiccated and dismissible in raw ideological form becomes compelling and possibly inspirational as a story. In addition, the authenticity of his evocation of rural life works subtly to support his claims for its merits.
In a daring and generally effective strategic conception, he has chosen a setting of deceptive simplicity in order to reveal the depth and complexity of human experience. Reasoning that the fashionable New Yorker short story may have exhausted its possibilities for revelation, Berger has taken the folktale as his model and has chosen to employ the ancient but still vital power of an unfolding narrative (“Once upon a time... “) as his method. Although the world he creates is likely to be unfamiliar to his anticipated audience, it becomes quickly recognizable in terms of the emotions and psychological conflicts of its characters. The Europa of his title is both modern Europe and the mythic continent that in Greek meant “land of the setting sun,” a place of primal, archetypal experience. The stories are basically love stories “set against the disappearance or modernisation [of] the traditional life of a mountain village,” as Berger himself describes them, and his portraits of people whose lives are defined by their encounters with elemental forces (weather, the shape of the land, the ways of animals) remind an urbanized, intellectual reader of the universality of the experiences he is describing. The essential nature of the relationships he explores (father/ daughter, man/wife, two lovers) is emphasized by the absence of the frivolity, self-absorption, and quasi-sophistication that often interfere with human contact in the last part of the twentieth century. Perhaps most fundamentally, the rural setting of the stories, removed from the detritus and clutter of excessive technology, intensifies the poignancy of the relationships Berger develops and explores.
While the locale is a crucial component of Berger’s conception, the language with which Berger presents les habitants—a better word than peasant because it avoids connotations of condescension and suggests a reciprocal relationship with the land—is equally important. It is not surprising to read Berger’s acknowledgment of the support he received from the Transnational Institute “during the long years I spent writing this book.” The ease and naturalness of the extensive dialogues and conversations and the lucid, precise evocations of the natural world are the work of a versatile writer who has evidently worked very carefully to achieve the precise tonal effects a particular voice or passage requires. Such familiar but eternal features of life as the appearance of mountain flowers, the emotional energy of human sensuality, the symbolic power of clear flowing water, and the terrifying sense of fragility experienced on a winter night are captured by Berger with a poetic clarity...
(The entire section is 2144 words.)