Any season that includes a new book by John Berger is a good season. Berger has enriched how we view the world with his brilliant ...
“Here Is Where We Meet”
by John Berger
Pantheon, 237 pp., $24
Any season that includes a new book by John Berger is a good season.
Berger has enriched how we view the world with his brilliant art criticism (“About Looking” and “Ways of Seeing” are just two splendid examples among many). His much-honored fiction trilogy “Into Their Labors,” written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, presents the activities of everyday French peasant life. In it, as we watch the mundane through his eyes, we see the importance of place for the human spirit.
Berger is now almost 80. In his newest work, “Here Is Where We Meet,” he creates a work of narrative art that is a fusion of all the forms he has mastered: the travel essay, the art essay, the novel and the memoir.
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His narrative opens in Lisbon, where his main character (also named John) meets his mother, 15 years dead. She chides him about his forgetfulness and then says: “The dead when they’re dead can choose where they want to live on Earth, always supposing they decide to stay on the Earth.”
Berger’s story is the journey of his travels, in direct response to his mother’s words, as he visits cities he has loved and meets friends no longer living.
His conversations with the dead are not extraordinary; they are matter-of-fact, the honest talk of old friends. Words start up on the street, in cafes, from the car next to him while he waits for the traffic light to turn green.
Allowing himself the pleasure of digression, Berger tells us things about the geography and history of the cities he wanders through on foot and by motorbike. Geneva, Kraków, Madrid, London … every place emerges as a character with a defining sensibility.
In the remarkable section titled “Le Pont d’Arc,” he visits France’s Chauvet cave, home to “the oldest known rock paintings in the world, 15,000 years older than the paintings of Lascaux or Altamira.” Berger brings us closer to these vanished people as he re-imagines how they made their art:
“A male ibex, with curved horns as long as its body, has been drawn with charcoal on whitish rock. How to describe the blackness of its traces? It is a blackness which makes the darkness reassuring, a blackness which is a lining for the immemorial. He is walking up a gentle incline, his steps delicate, his body rounded, his face flat. Each line is as tense as a well thrown rope, and the drawing has a double energy which is perfectly shared: the energy of the animal who has become present, and that of the man whose arm and eye are drawing the animal by torch light.”
Berger’s journey ends in a small Polish village, not far from the Ukrainian border. He is there to celebrate a wedding of living friends.
In the best sense, “Here Is Where We Meet” is beyond criticism. Here is the life of an artist, real and imagined, looking back at people who helped form him. Each portrait Berger draws is sharp and loving, without gloss.
In letting the dead speak plainly and simply, in showing how we can travel back into our own history, in informing us how looking and listening matter so much, Berger once again is our guide to being truly present in life.