To the Wedding

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1937

Ninon, an evidently healthy young woman who plans to marry her lover Gino, visits a doctor for treatment of a sore on her lip. After testing her, he informs her that she tests positive for the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Her intuition tells her that she caught...

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Ninon, an evidently healthy young woman who plans to marry her lover Gino, visits a doctor for treatment of a sore on her lip. After testing her, he informs her that she tests positive for the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Her intuition tells her that she caught the disease from a young apprentice cook with whom she made love only once. She visits him in prison to berate him and finds her suspicion confirmed by his moribund condition. Shattered by the news of her own mortal illness, Ninon tells Gino to have his blood tested, and when his results are negative she breaks off the relationship. Gino, however, insists that he still wants to marry her. Eventually Ninon agrees, although she insists on conditions that will protect Gino from infection.

The body of the novel is devoted to Ninon’s narration of events in her earlier life and those leading up to the wedding and the day of the wedding itself, alternating with Tsobanakos’ narrations of the preparations of Jean Ferrero and Zdena for their trips to Venice and the trips themselves. Jean travels from his home in southern France on his Honda motorbike, while Zdena takes the bus from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, where she has lived since the fall of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.

Ninon receives strong support and sympathy not only from Gino but also from her parents, friends, and physicians. Her friend Marella convinces her that she should marry Gino. The rest of the world, however, views her with undisguised horror. She goes to Milano to investigate a new drug, and while there she visits the piazza to see the Duomo in the evening. A large dog, off its leash, paws her, and its owner, after assuring her that the dog will not harm her, begins to paw her himself, assuming that she is a whore. She tries to fight him off, but he persists, and finally in desperation she tells him that she is infected. He flings her to the ground and begins to shout curses, accusing her of trying to pick him up with the intention of infecting him. A woman passing by raises a heavy handbag to hit Ninon but is restrained by her husband, who says that the matter is none of their affair. The worst of the incident, says Ninon, is the hatred with which the woman and her husband regard her.

The single segment that is narrated by neither Ninon nor Tsobanakos is in the words of Gino’s father when he learns that his son is about to marry Ninon. Horrified at the thought that his son will catch the disease from Ninon, he determines to kill her. Such an action, he rationalizes, will be a kindness, since it will save her months and perhaps years of suffering and will also spare his son similar suffering and death. Any jury, he reasons, would include fathers, and no father would vote to convict a man who had taken such an action to protect his son. When he comes face to face with Ninon, however, he cannot bring himself to shoot her.

While Ninon’s segments of the story take her in time from her childhood to the history of her disease and the preparations for the wedding, Tsobanakos’ narratives of Jean and Zdena take them from the final preparations for their separate trips to the wedding through the journeys themselves. Before setting out, Jean visits a mountain pool to which he had taken Ninon when she was a girl. He crosses the mountains on his bike, enjoys a pizza in a small workers’ restaurant, and spends a night in a camp on the banks of the Po with three rebellious teenage boys before riding the final stage of his journey. Along the way he stops to buy a special perfume as a present for Ninon.

Zdena’s preparations are more elaborate. She goes to a beauty shop to have her hair done for the first time in her life; the beautician misunderstands her words and thinks that Zdena herself is to be the bride. Zdena gives considerable thought to what she will take for a wedding present. Eventually, in a small shop, she buys two exquisitely hand-carved bird calls to take to her daughter. On the bus that is to take her from Bratislava to Venice, she sits next to a fellow Czech who had worked for the Communist government; now that his party is out of power, he keeps himself alive by driving a taxi. Despite their political differences, he and Zdena strike up a friendship, and at one point she bribes the bus driver to wait an extra couple of minutes so that her new companion will not be left behind. She is rewarded when the man surprises her with food and drink that he has bought.

Awareness of Ninon’s illness is constantly beneath the surface of her parents’ actions. She herself is able to keep her terror under control most of the time. At the wedding celebration she dances barefoot, seemingly lost in the moment. The account of the celebration, however, is the most harrowing part of the narrative. Tsobanakos is present at the wedding, at least in his imagination, and feels comfortable among Gino’s friends, who are salesmen like himself. Yet his imagination projects the reader forward in passages that are interwoven with descriptions of the festivities. These interjections move to the stages of Ninon’s disease when she first is ill with pneumonia and later must suffer through all the miseries of AIDS, while Gino tries to ease her pain and keep his own horror at bay. The novel ends as the wedding does, with the stark fact of a fatal disease and the counterbalance of Ninon’s determination to live to the limit while she can.

John Berger is a British painter, social critic, art critic, poet and novelist who has lived much of his adult life in rural France. His most significant earlier fictions were G (1972), a novel that won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize, and a trilogy entitled Into Their Labours (1979-1990), a detailed naturalistic account of the decay of French peasant life over several generations. To the Wedding (the proceeds of which have been assigned to an AIDS clinic in New York City’s Harlem section) is like those earlier works in focusing on a major social problem by studying its effects on a small group of characters. In almost every other way, however, the new novel is entirely different from its predecessors.

The layering of the stories through the voices of two different narrators causes some confusion in the early pages, but Ninon’s longer-range account of her life soon becomes distinct from the shorter length of time occupied by Tsobanakos’ accounts of her parents’ journeys. The main threads of narrative play off one another, so that the matter of a ring Gino gives to Ninon is seen in the context of Zdena’s pondering what sort of gift she can give to her daughter. The immediacy of Ninon’s reaction to her illness is given a broader context by the Greek seer’s comments on the other characters and their attempts to deal with their own dismay.

Berger makes much greater use of symbolism in To the Wedding than was the case in his earlier work. One major symbol of the novel is the ring Gino gives to Ninon, which she returns after her diagnosis and accepts again when she agrees to marry him. The ring is gold-colored, in the shape of a turtle. She can wear it pointing away so that the turtle swims out to see the world or pointing in so that the turtle is swimming home. After the wedding, when she prepares to dance, she wears it pointing in; her wedding ring she wears on another finger. The ring’s pointing one way represents the courage to move out into the world; it is a reminder of the courage Ninon requires to face every day of her life. Pointing the other way, the turtle symbolizes the need for a safe haven, which Gino offers to Ninon, even as both recognize that it can last only a brief while.

The other major symbol in To the Wedding are the tamata that Tsobanakos sells in the marketplace. Drawings of examples of these small medallions decorate the beginning of each chapter in the novel. They are charms that people buy to ward off evil or to bring them good news about something that has been worrying them. Too often, Tsobanakos is aware, they are the last refuge of hope. In his only physical connection with one of the major characters, he sells a heart-shaped tama to Jean. On the novel’s final page, Tsobanakos acknowledges, “The tama of the heart in tin was not sufficient.” Only prayer is a final refuge.

The role of Tsobanakos remains an enduring mystery in To the Wedding, the clearest departure of Berger’s technique from the conventions of formal realism. There is no indication in the novel of the source of the peddler’s evidently unlimited abilities. Blind Tsobanakos sees into the hearts and minds of the other characters. His sympathies seem to be virtually unlimited, extending not only to Ninon and her family and friends but to Gino’s father as well; he understands how a father would consider extreme measures to protect a beloved son against the threat of AIDS. It is only those who react to Ninon without pity who fail to receive Tsobanakos’ sympathy.

His blindness, his Greek nationality, his role as omniscient narrator, and the breadth of his sympathies suggest a connection between Tsobanakos and Homer, the blind poet who is reputed to be the author of the great Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey (both c. 800 b.c.e.). While Homer’s stories dealt with war and adventure, including the suffering and pain they involve, Tsobanakos is fated to tell of characters whose heroism is internal rather than external, shown in their determination to live lives as ordinary as possible under the most terribly extraordinary circumstances. The chief effect of this element in the novel is to raise Ninon to the level of a classical hero.

A story in which the central figure is a woman doomed to a terrifying illness and inevitable death is in danger of falling deep into sentimentality. In less skillful hands, Ninon’s fate would be nothing more than a conventional tear-jerker. Berger, however, manages superbly to avoid the pitfalls of convention. The clear crispness and lyric power of his prose help to maintain a careful balance between vivid presentations of the emotions of the various characters and a detachment that permits the reader to admire them without tears. The account of the wedding and the feast that follows, intercut with projections of Ninon’s eventual suffering, is one of the surpassing achievements of modern fiction. It is a threnody showing that humans, all of whom live in the shadow of death, can find cause for a joy that is enriched by the very shadows which darken it. To the Wedding is a short but powerful masterpiece.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, May 1, 1995, p. 1550.

Boston Globe. June 7, 1995, p. 86.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, March 1, 1995, p. 246.

Library Journal. CXX, May 1, 1995, p. 129.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 16, 1995, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. C, June 4, 1995, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXI, September 25, 1995, p. 106.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 6, 1995, p. 56.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 29, 1995, p. 24.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, July 23, 1995, p. 6.

To the Wedding

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

John Berger’s short novel deals with a major social problem through the medium of the characters he creates. Ninon, the central figure, is a young Frenchwoman who must face the grim reality that she will be a victim of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Her fiance Gino, a young Italian salesman, and her parents, must find their own ways to come to terms with Ninon’s fate. The novel follows her parents—Jean Ferrero and Zdena, a Czech—as they prepare to go to the wedding, and it also follows Ninon’s story of her life.

Ninon tells Gino to have himself tested; when the result is negative, she declares that she will not marry him. He strongly wishes to go through with the marriage, and eventually, with the urging of her friend Marella, Ninon agrees to go through with the ceremony, stipulating conditions that will protect Gino from infection. While the outside world views Ninon with horror, her family and friends as well as physicians who deal with her are kind and supportive. The wedding itself and the party which follows are a celebration of life.

The final scenes show that party but also show, through one of the narrators, a blind Greek salesman of good-luck charms, the future which Ninon is facing, including increasing illness, weakness and suffering. Gino will do what he can to relieve that suffering, but he must also try to deal with his own pain at what Ninon will be going through. These are harrowing scenes, but Berger manages with great skill to convey a strong sense of the value of human life and the joy it can contain.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, May 1, 1995, p. 1550.

Boston Globe. June 7, 1995, p. 86.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, March 1, 1995, p. 246.

Library Journal. CXX, May 1, 1995, p. 129.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 16, 1995, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. C, June 4, 1995, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXI, September 25, 1995, p. 106.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 6, 1995, p. 56.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 29, 1995, p. 24.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, July 23, 1995, p. 6.

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