Once in Europa

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2144

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.

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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 appropriate to the magnitude of the subject. His lyric language registers the degree to which people can still be moved by the great mysteries of existence. While the characters of the stories are not formally educated, their way of knowing the common elements of their lives permits them an eloquence often unavailable to a speaker more conscious of the effect of his words.

Although the stories are not directly connected, and the characters of one story do not reappear in the others, there is an affinity of landscape and sensibility that links them, and the stories have been arranged to produce several effects that occur by accretion and by an interchange of ideas. The first story, “The Accordion Player,” establishes the milieu of the mountain community. Weather, crops, animals—the controlling factors for a farm economy—are of paramount importance, but, behind a kind of reserve formed by a precarious way of life and a necessary acceptance of limits, passionate feeling is deeply embedded. Felix, the middle-aged musician of the title, is severely shaken by the death of his rock-strong mother, but through the gift of his music he is drawn gradually back into the social life of the community. Berger sees music—his metaphor for all art in this case—as a miraculous offering from the gods which enables humans to share, for moments, the strengths of the gods themselves. Speaking directly, but not didactically, Berger says:Music demands obedience. It even demands obedience of the imagination when a melody comes to mind. You can think of nothing else. It’s a kind of tyrant. In exchange it offers its own freedom. All bodies can boast about themselves with music. The old can dance as well as the young. Time is forgotten. And that night, from behind the silence of the last stars, we thought we heard the affirmation of a Yes.

In the next story, “Boris Is Buying Horses,” a man pits his exceptional strength against the powers of the natural world, holding his own until his love for a woman who will not desert her family and commit herself completely to him drives him to a wild despair and death. Berger does not blame anyone in the story, but enables the reader to understand Boris’ unsympathetic but almost absurdly admirable stubbornness as well as Marie-Jeanne’s extremely practical responses to him and to her husband. Boris’ self-willed death is a product of his extraordinary delusion that he can will into being whatever he wishes, and his single-mindedness is the source of both his strength and his ruination. Rather than offering a psychological explanation or reaching for some kind of moral, Berger presents the facts and remarks, “Anyone who believes that evil does not exist and that the world was made good should go out tonight into the fields.”

Then, as if to contradict the implication in the previous story that the compromises required by most relationships must lead to disappointment, “The Time of the Cosmonauts” tells the story of the old shepherd Marius and a young girl named Danielle who cannot realistically develop an intimate relationship even though they are well-matched in many ways. Nevertheless, their deep friendship leads Marius to experience a confirmation of his instinctive belief in life’s struggles, and as a tribute to his being, it leads Danielle to a pattern of living suitable to her hidden virtues. In choosing to love Pasquale, a man of unusual sensitivity and understanding, Danielle is able to protect and preserve the spirit of Marius’ life which she has captured with her love.

The title story, located in the center of the collection, is a tribute to the adaptability and resilience of the human spirit and the heartening capacity of people to survive and grow through misfortune. Because the events of the story are so close to the tragic, Berger has had to devise a method for avoiding easy sentimentality and the cheap rush of emotional response that human suffering generates in the hands of a hack. His primary means is to narrate the story through the words of its protagonist, a laconic but subtly observant young woman named Odile whose family’s land is threatened by the industrial waste of a nearby factory. This is the most overtly ideological of the stories, and the transformation of Odile’s awareness from an agronomic orientation to a political one parallels the emergence of a woman’s wisdom to replace a child’s questing curiosity.

Odile is also the central figure in a generational transition from her father’s relative isolation to her son’s confidence in the flux of the world. The story resembles a novella both in scope and structure as the strangers brought into the valley as factory workers force changes in the lives of the local people that, in Odile’s case, lead to the unfolding of aspects of character that might otherwise have remained dormant. Odile’s first boyfriend is an idealistic young Communist, Michel, whose legs are destroyed in a motorbike accident. In her pain, Odile chooses to discard some useless social conventions, and is thus able to meet Stepan, a Russian steelworker, who brings her a vast new world to consider. When Stepan is killed in an accident at the plant, the short, glorious time of their love is crystallized in memory, and then given a new shape when their son Christian is born. Her responsibility for Christian reanimates her sense of herself as a person and galvanizes her instinctual feelings into a kind of code which places her humane principles into focus as a guide for action. In terse but warm terms typical of her no-nonsense approach, she gives her son his history:You were born, Christian, on April 10th. You weighed 3.4 kilos, you had blue eyes, hair softer than the thistledown of a dandelion, hands smaller than Stepan’s thumbs and legs like holy bread, with a zizi between them.

The narrative proceeds as Odile rears Christian, works on an assembly line, meets Michel again, and becomes friends with him as he reconstructs his life. At the conclusion, Michel is fully operative and competent, the proprietor of a newspaper stand who has been given the gift of fire-cutting (removing pain), Odile and Michel are the parents of a young girl, and Christian has become a pilot whose plane can give his mother the wings of wonder her imagination had supplied before.

Even though the story is only seventy pages long, it conveys a sense of history and projects a span of time that allows the characters to progress through several significant stages of growth. The details of Odile and Michel’s courtship are related by Odile to Christian during a flight above, but not disconnected from, the world they inhabit. This confession of motive and action is Odile’s story, the modestly triumphant explanation of the confidence of her maturity, a heartfelt expression of satisfaction in overcoming the paralysis of pain and depression.

Beginning as a celebration of place, the story evolves into an account of a woman’s growth through the sadness of loss toward a positive accommodation with the attainable. In some of his most powerful writing, Berger conveys the woman’s sense of her own life and the philosophical serenity developed through an intelligent reflection on the trials of existence. Writing from within Odile’s mind and soul, with language shaped by clarity and precision, Berger provides in this story an apostrophe to woman’s mythic beauty, man’s primal energy, and also woman’s sensitive intellect, man’s enduring decency... in short, a testament to the qualities of humanity he most admires. In an age of minimal gestures and reduced expectations, Berger has accepted the great challenge of art to restate the timeless verities in terms of his own times. Although he cannot always succeed, Berger is unafraid to reach for eternal truths, inspired enough to be able, at his best, to touch them.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

Booklist. LXXXIII, February 1, 1987, p. 820.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, January 15, 1987, p. 72.

Library Journal. CXII, March 1, 1987, p. 90.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, April 5, 1987, p. 9.

People Weekly. XXVII, May 11, 1987, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, February 6, 1987, p. 84.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, March 29, 1987, p. 3.

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