John Berger’s PHOTOCOPIES is a series of very short stories that are much like photographs or still-life paintings. They show a fascinating variety of people and situations that the author has known. In only a few pages, each story captures the essential features of a life or a moment or an experience.
In “A Woman and Man Standing by a Plum Tree,” the author is visited by a young woman artist who takes a photograph of the two of them with a primitive plywood box camera. In “Two Dogs Under a Rock,” two men share lunch in a small cabin on a mountainside. In “Sheets of Paper Laid on the Grass,” the photographer returns with the photo taken under the plum tree and shows her host her drawings. In “Two Men Beside a Cow’s Head,” the author helps a friend deliver a still-born calf. In “Two Cats in a Basket,” an old man sits watching two cats sleep and thinks about how male and female cats still feel they are two parts of the same being, but that men and women were separated at creation and long for the lost feeling of unity. In “Room 19,” the author and a friend spend hours in a Paris hotel room analyzing the friend’s canvases. And in “Subcomandante Insurgente,” the author, sitting at a French public swimming pool and watching the children laugh and play, reads of the plight of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico, and hopes that the message of these desperate people will be heard.
Themes of age, loneliness, and death add a sense of solemnity, but also act as a foil for the shimmering moments of life, making them even brighter. There is such economy of words, such brutal honesty, and such ruthless insight into the souls of these people that in less than five pages, each story captures its moment. Such breathtaking clarity and grasp of the truth is a tribute not only to a truly fine writer, but to a deep and compassionate soul.