"To the Wedding," by John Berger. Pantheon Books. 202 pages. $22 Novelist and art critic John Berger, author of a highly regarded study of Picasso, won the prestigious Booker prize in 1972 for "G." Before long he had given away his Booker money and abandoned the drawing rooms of London for a small village in the French Alps. Living among the peasantry, Mr. Berger worked at mind-numbing manual labor. Unlike other British Marxists, he linked himself in practice rather than theory with ordinary people of the soil.
An exquisite stylist, Mr. Berger has now written an elegant novel with its central character a 24-year-old named Ninon who is dying of AIDS. (Mr. Berger has donated his royalties this time to a Harlem AIDS center.) But "To the Wedding" resonates far beyond the fate of a careless girl who contracts the plague in a chance sexual encounter.
Mr. Berger evokes Europe at the millennium and his characters form a microcosm of post-Communist Europe. Ninon's mother is Czech, her father, a French railwayman. The sometime narrator in the least successful of Mr. Berger's stylistic experiments is a blind Greek peddler of tamas, or amulets, a Tiresias whose chance meeting with Ninon's French father occasions his fashioning this tale for the new century. The Europe Mr. Berger loves is epitomized in the image of a long table of workingmen jovially sharing pizza and red wine in a small Italian village Ninon's father visits on his way to the wedding.
A philosophical, Kundera-like novel in which people ponder the trajectories of history, "To the Wedding" brilliantly presents us with the texture of life in this new Europe without borders. Morally exhausted Czech carpenters attempt to discover "the least harmful thing we could do in this world - which would at the same time permit us to live." They choose to craft bird calls. Yet Berger remains unpersuaded that the Communist experiment signaled a flaw in the vision. "For something to be dead, it has first to be alive," says a Czech taxi driver, once an editor of encyclopedias. "And that wasn't the case with communism."
Europe has lost the frontiers that occasioned so much death, but now AIDS is its emblem. There are no rich people in this book, no artists or intellectuals. Rather, there is a celebration of the simple life for which the author left the salons of Western Europe and the perquisites of the successful bourgeois artist. Berger ponders what is "the heaviest wave in this deep sea of sorrow which is life." His answer is "approaching death with lack of work."
Otherwise there is love and acceptance. This brief yet deeply affecting novel, itself a tama against pain, culminates in Ninon's wedding to Gino, an Italian peddler of clothes. Gino knows of her doom yet chooses to accompany her to the end.
A writer incapable of renouncing hope, Mr. Berger insists that AIDS does not destroy love; it heightens it. Picaresque, lyrical, defiantly European, with our fate of AIDS at its center, "To the Wedding" haunts the reader, lingers in the soul. Great artists respond to the particular suffering of their time and John Berger has once more gracefully accomplished that here.
Joan Mellen teaches fiction workshops in the Creative Writing program at Temple University. Her fiction includes "Natural Tendencies" she has written widely about European cinema, particularly in "Women and Their Sexuality In the New Film." Her "Hammett and Miss Hellman," a dual biography, will be published by HarperCollins next year.