As in the first part of the trilogy, in Once in Europa Berger continues with his sensual realism and recreates the life of a place where traditional peasant daily routines have been preserved. However, as opposed to Pig Earth, moments of a documentary-like depiction of working the land are rare in the five stories of Once in Europa. The narratives are considerably lighter as they are free of heavily descriptive details frequent in the first part of the trilogy. Compared to the stories in Pig Earth, the stories of Once in Europa pursue a plot line to a much greater degree, since they are far more concerned with events disrupting the life of the place and their influence upon the community. All of the stories in one way or another depict a world being stripped of meaning by both spatial and temporal discontinuities.
In the first story of the volume called “The Accordion Player”, the main protagonist, Félix, farms alone with his old mother who dies in the course of the story. Her death is a central event in the story that Félix has to face and come to terms with. From its early beginning, the story is permeated with an atmosphere of decay. The narrator for example speaks about an “invasion of the moles” which causes “the earth everywhere” to look “like an animal whose fur was falling out” (OE 5). A couple of lines later on the narrator explains that the outbreak of the moles has been caused by the death of a large number of foxes and says that “the foxes had died because of the rabies which had been brought to our region from the distant Carpathians” (OE 5). The village life, in Pig Earth depicted as only slowly and steadily changing, is now being quickly transformed by some “distant” outside powers.
Compared to other characters of the stories, Félix still continues in the traditional peasant way of life which is, however, slowly disappearing due to modernisation. The most palpable impact of the social transformation on Félix’s life is his loneliness which he feels profoundly after his mother’s death:
[…] he was alone. Alone to decide the risk, to cut the hay, to tend it, to windrow it, to load it, to transport it, to unload it, to pack it, to level it, to quench his thirst, to prepare his own supper. With the new machines he did not have to work harder than in the first half of his life; the difference now was that he was finally alone.
Because he was alone, he would always be the last to finish his hay. (OE 26-7)
What gives even more emphasis to his loneliness is the behaviour of animals in his surroundings: “As he wept his head slowly fell forward until his forehead touched the oilcloth. Odd how sounds of distress are recognized by animals. The dog approached the man’s back and, getting up on his hind legs, rested its front paws on his shoulder blades” (OE 29). The dog can perform as a companion in this example only because Félix is “finally alone”. In the stories of Pig Earth, animals appear much more often on the stage; however, they do not need to offer companionship as distress caused by loneliness is not a common aspect of the stories.
The story thus depicts loneliness as one of the anguish-causing effects of the slow disintegration of community life. Members of the community are made to leave the place for a promise of a better life somewhere else and Félix is becoming unable to work the land on his own. The changes in the community are expressed in the words of a local doctor who displays very little understanding and sensitivity to what is happening to the village as a community. When Félix confides to him that what might improve his (Felix’s) health is “an extra pair of hands” and further on adds: “preferably a woman’s hands, but I’ll accept a man’s or even a boy’s”, he only confirms the doctor’s disdain for the villagers. Later on, the doctor delivers his favourite remark over dinner: “[…] the death of women in the valley—the best men having left with the women following them—was pushing the idiots who remained towards homosexuality and even bestiality” (OE 19). He thus not only reflects on the unstoppable process of migration. He also expresses the derogative connotation which a life in a small community starts to have.
The fact that the traditional life is condemned to a slow disappearance causes a temporal and spatial dislocation in Félix’s life which is, however, countered by the narrative itself. Towards the end of the story, when he is for a moment defeated by his distress, the tragedy of his experience is expressed in the stream of memories of his dead parents and the past, and in all the futile hopes for the future: “He wept for all that would no longer happen. He wept for his mother making potato fritters. […] He wept for his father shouting. He wept for his bobsled he had as a boy. […] He wept for the smell of a woman ironing sheets. […] He wept for the farm where there were no children” (OE 29). Yet, the force of disintegration in modernity that he is made to feel in his own life is in fact constantly being challenged by his memories of the past. As the scenes in which Félix remembers his parents are freely inserted into the narrative of his present life, the potential reader is obliged to accept a broader temporal perspective than the one offered by the process of modernisation in which the old traditions are being eliminated. Félix’s memories offer him, as well as to the potential reader, a sense of continuity.
The importance of historical time is also stressed by the role of music in the story. It is Félix’s renewed fondness for his accordion which helps him to find a new sense of orientation. Music enables him to express and thus release his grief and sorrow as it offers structure and meaning: “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” (OE 35). The tragedy of Félix’s loneliness caused by the death of his parents, the disintegration of the community life and his lack of an erotic relationship is finally transcended by music. As his accordion player is a gift from his parents, music thus connects the past with the present, to which it offers structure and form, and with the possible future because it brings hope: “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” (OE 35). In the context of the story, music plays against the “silence of stars”, against the silence of eternity and indifference as it represents an awareness of the possibility of hope in the present moment when it is entering the body and provides a feeling of “Yes” – an affirmation of a life in the present.
The opening story of the collection thus depicts the anguish that is caused by the disintegrating powers of modernity upon the peasant relationship to place. Félix is, in a way, a victim of these powers because they have a direct and perceptible impact on his life; however, he is also able to face and counter the powers by his individual resilience symbolized by the act of his playing the accordion. The story shows the tragic circumstances of an ordinary life which cannot be escaped: Félix is, after all, “finally alone” and has to deal with his loneliness. However, the reader is drawn in beyond these circumstances by Félix’s personal resilience – his accordion playing – which in fact makes him a romantic hero. As my analysis shows further on, personal resilience exceeding the oppressive facts of modernisation is an important aspect of all the stories in Once in Europa.
Another story dealing with the question of loneliness is called Boris is Buying Horses. The story is much more obviously a reflection of the “outside” powers that change the peasant relationship to place. In fact, it depicts the clash of two different cultures. Compared to The Accordion Player, the story of Boris deals much more distinctly with the changes wrought upon the peasant place by the new social system. An especially prominent focus is given to the theme of romantic and passionate love that constitutes an aspect of the narrative which is much more pronounced than in the story of Félix.
Boris is a burly man of vigorous intensity and brute physical strength which makes him fearful and intimidating in the eyes of others. He also displays a lot of negligence stemming from his underestimating attitude towards the importance of work and concentrated effort. However, he is also a character capable of an unusual intensity of passion and resolution which makes him both exceptional and very vulnerable. When Boris falls in love with a “blond” (OE 43) who comes to the village from a city to buy or otherwise get hold of some real estate in the area, she, encouraged by her husband, plays on Boris’ fierce passion for her and gets him under her thumb. The story presents the two characters from the city as displaying a considerable lack of sensitivity or respect towards the place and its inhabitants. Boris is warned about the couple by one of his local friends who tells him that “city women are not the same” as those coming from the village because they “smell of something else”, that something else being “money” (OE 52). The two people from the city tend to be primarily depicted as chasing after profit regardless of the consequences. The story contrasts the “smell of money” with the “smell of work”: “She [the blond] had the smell of a buxom, plump body without a trace of the smell of work. Work has the smell of vinegar” (OE 45). The tension in the story is constituted by the contrast between the more abstract world of money and people being driven by economic circumstances and the more grounded and physical drive of Boris’ passion and affection he feels towards the woman. However, what prevents the story from becoming a simplifying moral demonstration is the fact that Boris himself is not by any means portrayed as a saint, and, more importantly, that there is something deeper and more powerful to his passion than a mere affection.
Though the blond and her partner are significantly profit-driven and do abuse Boris’ soft spot to manipulate him, Boris is also said to have just one plan: “to buy thin and sell fat” (OE 43). He works as a cattle dealer and displays a gross neglect of the animals that he keeps as he also is considerably profit-driven. One of the reasons for why he finds the blond attractive is that her laughter is like a “promise”, a promise of “something big, of the unknown, of a kind of Canada” (OE 44). The blond embodies for him a different world in which he could finally feel “recognised” (OE 53) as he starts to proudly believe that “recognition” is something he was in fact destined to have. And to be recognised in the world of the blond is to make profit and acquire. The story thus points to cultural powers that make one believe in such dreams as that of “Canada”. The fulfilment of such dreams is, on the one hand, easily imaginable; however, what makes them dubious and even phantasmagorical is the undefined place where they could be fulfilled. This is clear from the narrator’s use of the words “a kind of Canada”. Boris is thus, on the one hand, driven by economic circumstances; however, on the other one, behind the almost innocent purity of his passion for the blond is a desire for a grounding that would provide a centre of his being.
As Boris gradually becomes much indebted due to his negligence and irresponsibility, he becomes more and more abstracted from himself and, finally, a victim of his desire: “Huddled under the rock, the Milky Way trailing its veil towards the south, he [Boris] considered his position. Debts were warnings of the ultimate truth, they were signs, not yet insistent, of the final inhospitality of life on this Earth” (OE 63). When Boris is not able to continue in his acquisitive endeavour, the Earth becomes inhospitable because his life has been stripped of meaning. In this sense, he is dislocated and his dislocation creates a construction around his passion making it consequently gain another fierce dimension: “On this inhospitable earth he had found, at the age of forty-one, a shelter. The blond was like a place: one where the law of inhospitality did not apply. He could take this place anywhere, and it was enough for him to think of her, for him to approach it” (OE 63, italics mine). His emotions are surrounded and therefore reinforced by what he misses: a place as a centre of meaning and the site of the real. The fact that he naively believes that the blond could succumb to his rough peasant masculinity and give him such a site is one of the tragedies of the story. Boris is only able to approach it/her in his thoughts and gets finally lost:
If he was waiting and if he never lost for one moment, either awake or asleep, the image of what he was waiting for—the breast into which his face at last fitted—he no longer knew where it would come from. There was no path along which he could look. His heart was still under his left ribs, he still broke the bread into pieces for the dogs with his right hand, holding the loaf in his left, the sun in the late afternoon still went down behind the same mountain, but there were no longer any directions. The dogs knew how he was lost. (OE 72)
The story depicts Boris’ desire as partially a result of some of the destructive impacts on the community life. In And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, Berger comments on the phenomenon of romantic love while saying:
Romantic love, in the modern sense, is a love uniting or hoping to unite two displaced persons. Friendship, solidarity, mutual interests can also unite people, but they do so according to experience and circumstances. They usually have an empirical basis. Whereas romantic love remembers beginnings and origins. Its primacy pre-dates experience. And it is this primacy which allows it to have a special meaning (from Novalis to Frank Sinatra) in the modern epoch. (66)
Boris’ passion for the blond is closely related to his being displaced and dislocated. This is what prevents the story from being seen as making simple moral judgments of his acts. The theme of romantic love “uniting or hoping to unite two displaced persons” is also present in other stories of Once in Europa and, as we will see in the next chapter of this work, it also functions as a clearly crucial aspect of the city novel Lilac and Flag.
However, the point of the story “Boris is Buying Horses” is not to be found in the romantic tragedy of Boris’ life. The romantic element of Boris’ unfulfilled desire, stemming partially from the disintegration of his life, can make the story a trigger of the potential reader’s sympathy and it does constitute one of its crucial features. Nevertheless, as Peter Hitchcock points out in his essay concerned with the process of proletarianisation “‘Work Has the Smell of Vinegar’: Sensing Class in John Berger’s Trilogy”, the point of the story is to be found right at the beginning of it in the souvenir shop. Some years later after Boris’ tragic death, in fact, at the time of the presence of the narrator’s life, there is a tourist shop in the village run by Marie-Jeanne which is the real name of the blond. The shop offers various imitations of peasant life and other objects for tourist consumers. In the story, the shop functions as an inconspicuous symbol of a victory of one culture over another because, as Hitchcock aptly puts it: “Boris did not just lose his life: he has had the memory of that way of living packaged” (25). And the fact that even the narrator’s books are now offered in the shop draws the potential reader’s attention to the shop’s function in the story.
The images of the country and the city in the story of Boris clearly are not primarily used to evoke sentimental feelings towards the disappearing peasant life. One needs to look at them as at material which gives body to different thoughts. This is where Raymond Williams’ theoretical observations significantly come into play. As he says in The Country and the City, the images may “express, not only in disguise and displacement but in effective meditation or in offered and sometimes effective transcendence, human interests and purposes for which there is no other immediately available vocabulary” (291). In “Boris is Buying Horses”, the clash between the urban symbolised by “the smell of money” and the rural symbolised by the smell of labour, which in the story has the “smell of vinegar”, is a clash between the abstract and the sensate.
In his essay, Peter Hitchcock links the sensate in Berger’s writing to the “concreteness” of social classes and says: “Sensing class is way to comprehend what is actually stymied by class as a social division: that is, a human as what Marx calls a ‘species being’ in whom the senses become […] theoreticians” (24). The fact that it is labour which is situated in the world of sensual perception links us to Marx’s theory of alienation and the concept of the commodification of the senses which we have already dealt with in the previous chapter. As Adams puts it in his essay “Aesthetics: Liberating the senses”, for Marx, “the human relationships of production – the meanings that constitute them, the ends that ground and direct them – provide the foundations and limit the conditions for all forms of social interaction, including cultural interactions” (254). For Marx, modes of production are modes of life and this takes us to the senses, to which labour is directly linked in Berger’s story. The fact that Berger is concerned with the position of perception accentuates not only the difference between peasant culture and the culture characterised by acquisition. It also stresses the potential of human sensual perception and, consequently, of humans themselves. Because “even the senses, Marx suggests in one of the more provocative passages of the Manuscripts, are products of human action” (Adams 250).
The theme of romantic love and sensuality of labour links us immediately to another story in the volume called “Once in Europa”. It begins with a short paragraph commenting on a poppy bursting into flower:
Before the poppy flowers, its green calyx is hard like the outer shell of an almond. One day this shell is split open. Three green shards fall to the earth. It is not an axe that splits it open, simply a screwed-up ball of membrane-thin folded petals like rags. As the rags unfold, their colour changes from neonate pink to the most brazen scarlet to be found in the fields. It is as if the force that split the calyx were the need of this red to become visible and to be seen. (OE 111)
The reader is as if “watching” the poppy coming into flower and, at the same time, is asked to think about what it is that makes the red spring out. The narrator does not give any didactic kind of answer and only suggests that it is the “need” of the colour itself to be seen. Rather than wading into some kind of explanation of the need and seeking comprehension of it, the narrator acknowledges its necessity. The reader is thus asked to recognise and similarly acknowledge the existential process of the force and desire behind the flowering. This force is then parallel to the forces and desires that the story itself expresses and that the reader is again asked to acknowledge since the story is written in a very similar manner to the one of the opening paragraph – it represents and recreates some forces and powers exceeding mere facts.
The story is told from the perspective of Odile, a middle-aged woman, who is paragliding or hand gliding in tandem with her son and, while observing the landscape below, she tells the story of her life. The perspective from above of the narrator is crucial. First, it immediately evokes a feel of lightness which only adds to the lightness of the narratives in Once in Europa when compared to the stories in Pig Earth. The narrator is, in a way, still an outside observer of the community. However, as opposed to the observer in, for example, “A Question of Place”, the place is being looked at from above and this mode of narration thus makes the narrator and the main character of “Once in Europa” uplifted. The perspective consequently enables a sort of a literary topographic depiction of the life below. From the sky, the narrator can even see a “white […] page of the world below” (OE 114) and is permitted to create a portrait of the village as another “living portrait of itself” (Berger, “Storyteller” 367). At the same time, this perspective from above also foregrounds the state of displacement and dislocation that the characters experience and that my analysis will further on outline in more detail. Second, it enables temporal leaps, since Odile not only flies in space but time as well. The narrative present of the storyline speaks about events in the past of Odile’s life and is occasionally interrupted by brief references to the immediate presence of her flying in the sky. Similar to but more distinctive than both “The Accordion Player” and “Boris is Buying Horses”, the reader is hence again obliged to accept a temporal perspective broader than a simple linear narrative present would offer. Stressing thus the importance of coexistence of the past and present and possible future, the narrative challenges some discontinuous aspects of social changes brought about by modernisation.
The story of “Once in Europa” focuses on the life of Odile’s family which must face the consequences of the process of modernisation, namely, the fade-out of the peasant way of life. Various aspects of this process are clearly represented and symbolised in the story. The main invader of the community life is the local factory that causes environmental pollution and also otherwise plays a crucial and sometimes fatal role in the characters’ lives. Odile talks about her childhood years when she first learnt about the factory at school. Her story speaks about how the factory was built in the area without enough attention being paid to its impacts on the environment. The main reason for situating the factory in the place is mountain water which produces hydro-electricity which in turn provides power for furnaces wherein ore is smelted for manganese and molybdenum. The factory’s chimney keeps reminding locals of its negative impacts. Looking at it, Odile’s father says it looks “like a black viper standing on its tail” (OE 115). And for Odile flying in the air, “the factory squats on the river like a woman peeing” (OE 116). However, whereas Odile’s father never comes to terms with the factory and stubbornly though vainly resists it till his death, for Odile, the factory is also a place where she meets men and learns about the new labour regime. She is more capable of coming to terms with its contradictions than her father.
The character of Odile thus enables Berger to contrast the place of the factory with the world of the peasantry. As a child, Odile learns to work the land with her father who teaches her for instance to work with manure or to plant according to the temperature of the earth. The story stresses the traditions of the peasant work and the skills such a work demands and is in this respect similar to some stories in Pig Earth. When Odile starts work as an assembly line worker in the components factory, the only law that applies to her repetitive job is ‘time equals money’. Devoid of all meaning except that of earning money for its own sake, her experience of work in the factory exemplifies the dramatic process of a profit-seeking, rational industrialisation which is coming to dominate labour. Many of the other stories in Once in Europa concern this process too. In “Boris is Buying Horses” for example, one of the villagers comments on the process by saying: “More and more inspections, more and more government officials. There’s no room for skill anymore” (OE 67).
However, it is the story of Odile that most distinctively deals with this aspect of modernization. The meaninglessness of Odile’s work experience is later on emphasised by the grief she feels after the death of her first lover, Stepan, who vanishes or, more exactly, dissolves in one of the factory’s furnaces. The alienation Odile ascribes to the manganese factory where Stepan works is expressed in her characterisation of the site:
Each wall, each opening, each ladder was like the bone of a sheep’s skull found in the mountain—fleshless, emptied, extinct. The furnaces throbbed, the river flowed, the smoke, sometimes white, sometimes grey, sometimes yellow, thrust upwards into the sky, men worked night and day for generations, sweating, retching, pissing, coughing, the Factory had not stopped once for seven years, it produced thirty thousand tons of ferromanganese a year, it made money, it tested new alloys, it made experiments, it made profits, and it was inert, barren, derelict. (OE 155)
The factory is characterized by its “inertness” and total lifelessness. It just stands there in the village, motionless and unstoppable in its production, a deadening and merciless law unto itself. The factory kills Stepan and mutilates Michel, Odile’s second lover – its existence is only based on the certainty of its lifeless presence. At another point of the story, when Odile is finally coming to terms with Stepan’s death and ponders how the factory just cannot evoke any memories of him in her, she comments: “There is nothing in the factory which can have a memory” (OE 164). The story dramatizes the factory as a site of death. There is no room for expressions of human creativity in it; there are no meaningful directions, only temporal and spatial oblivion. The factory is depicted as giving no sense of place – it is a non-place.
The importance of this dramatisation lies in its juxtaposition with Odile’s body and its fertility. Odile concludes her description characterising the factory by saying: “I knew how the womb in my belly was the opposite of all I could see and touch [in the factory]” (OE 155). Her bodily knowledge stands in stark contrast to the rationalised effectiveness of the factory production. What we have here is again a contrast between the abstract that alienates and the sensate and bodily that centres the character and helps to counter the alienating powers of the factory. As we will see a bit later on, this alienation, which causes dislocation, is challenged even more intensively by the bodily aspect further on in the story.
Both Odile’s lovers, Stepan and Michel, become victims of the process of modernisation not only through the alienation of their jobs in the factory. Stepan is finally killed and Michel physically mutilated. They cannot escape the process and Michel, a character of pronounced communist sympathies, functions, together with the maquisard called Saint-Just in “The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol”, as a second socialist figure who is struck by the capitalist order in the trilogy. Nevertheless, what brings meaning and a sense of centeredness into their lives, as well as into Odile’s, is their erotic relationships. The story concentrates on the importance of the two romantic relationships, between Odile and Stepan and later Odile and Michel, which highlight that there is something more valuable than mere monetary value, as the capitalist system would try to make us believe. This is also the reason for why the story pays so much attention to the female body which is in fact being depicted as a site of this centeredness. This is for instance obvious when Odile gently encourages her daughter:
Look in a mirror when you pass one this afternoon in the hearing aid shop in Annecy whilst you’re waiting for Papa, look at your hair which you washed last night and see how it invites being touched. Look at your shoulder when you wash at the sink and then look down at where your breasts assembles itself , look at the part between shoulder and breast which slopes like an alpage—for thirty years still this slope is going to attract tears, teeth clenched in passion, feverish children, sleeping heads, work-rough hands. This beauty which hasn’t a name. (OE 176)
What comes out when one carefully looks at these gentle words of maternal tenderness, which might easily be confused for words from a love letter, is Odile’s language of the peasant existence she uses for the body place which she assimilates to “an alpage”. A bit further on the page, a stomach “falling at its centre into the navel” is like “a white begonia in full bloom” and legs seen from the back are like “lilies before they open” (OE 176-7). The metaphors in this as well as other parts of the story treat features of female body as natural landscape or parts of the natural world. This can remind one of the ways human bodies merge with the natural environment in some metaphors in the stories of Pig Earth. However, the peasant bodily relationship to the land stemming partially from the peasant’s ontological roots in a particular place, the literary demonstration of which we have observed in some stories in Pig Earth, seems to be transformed into erotic relationships in “Once in Europa”. The story continues in its romantic description of the female body as a place providing a sort of an unconditional love: “You can tell yourself other things about him [a male lover] when he has left, yet all of it remains far away compared to the places within you to which you lead him” (OE 178, italics mine). In the story, The human body becomes a place of centeredness which counters the dislocating powers of the new social order.
In “Once in Europa”, dislocation, brought about by the new economic system that changes labour into an alienated activity, is challenged by the erotic which drives the characters despite the adverse economic circumstances. Through its romanticism and concentration on the sensate, it also provides an erotics of reading for the potential reader. This links us to our brief discussion of G., because erotic relationships in Once in Europa provide the characters with a possibility of liberation and of being themselves. At the same time, they provide them with meaning because they basically live for their family relationships. The theme of romantic love is also dealt with in a very similar manner in another story of the collection called “The Time of the Cosmonauts”.
However, “Once in Europa” is a story that could only happen once in “Europa”. Whilst romantic love is the crucial aspect here, what gives it such an extreme importance is the slow and inevitable disappearance of the peasant life. The process of modernisation and the clash of different cultures is also symbolised in the title of the story where the eastern ending of the word “Europa” hints to the often enforced movements and transitions of migrants when workers especially from the East come to Europe to earn a living. Stepan, Odile’s first love, comes to France from Russia. And behind all the despair that such a transition and clash causes are the powers and forces of resilience that the reader is exposed to through reading the story. In her article “John Berger, Leslie Kaplan, and the Western Fixation on the Other Europe”, Charity Scribner reproaches Berger for being too sentimental in Once in Europa for his “desire to regress from present contingencies into the imaginary harmony of preindustrial working life” and says that he “clings to imaginary remainders of the peasant collective” (243). One can object to her point by saying that Berger never explicitly demands a return to the peasant way of life. And though tragic, the stories do not embrace the peasant culture as a way out. Rather, they speculatively present the cultural clash and show forms of resilience. Romantic love is the most obvious one, but there is also Michel’s determination to live his life to the fullest despite having lost both his legs. There is also his ability to sooth the pain of burns, though no one, not even himself, can explain how such a thing is possible. This takes us back to the poppy at the beginning of the story. In this respect, the story is existential.22 However, Berger’s existentialism does not leave the characters forlorn in the world of the absurd. In very general terms, the existential drives of the characters stand in protest against the view of humans as hopeless objects of historical processes or natural laws.23 And the act of storytelling is the ultimate resilience of the story because, as in the case of Pig Earth, it communicates experience to the reader and, as I have already mentioned in the previous chapter of my work, the trilogy was not written “from” their labours but into their labours and the stories therefore require mindful work on the side of the potential reader.
The stories in Once in Europa are tragedies of the ordinary and everyday responding to some oppressive powers of social disorder. With respect to how we have discussed Raymond Williams’ Modern Tragedy, this aspect of the stories underlines Berger’s socialist politics of resistance to the capitalist logic of modernity. Since the stories focus on the life of ordinary human beings rather than some exceptional individuals, they also underline Berger’s egalitarianism. However, while dislocated by forces over which they have no power as individuals, the characters in Once in Europa are driven by a desire to overcome their dislocation. The erotic and the romantic are shown to be of crucial importance for the stories as they provide the characters with a means of becoming re-centred or, at least, they are hoped that they will do, and the potential reader is provided with an erotics of reading. At the same time, the romantic helps the characters to transcend the tragic circumstances of their condition. As a socialist, Berger thus not only speaks about the importance of labour and capital in the production of space; he also acknowledges the existence of feelings as a power that exceeds mere facts and helps to find a new direction as well as creating hope. As we will see in the next chapter, the erotic and romantic elements remain crucial even in the last part of the trilogy, a city novel called Lilac and Flag.
4. Spatial Oblivion in Lilac and Flag
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light--
We‘re all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.
-- William Wordsworth
Meanwhile, we live not just our own lives but the longings of our century.
-- John Berger24
In the last part of the trilogy, a novel called Lilac and Flag, the characters are finally put into an urban environment and the work thus certainly reflects the movement of modernity towards an increasing urbanisation. The primary concern of the novel, however, is not a realist portrayal of an urbanised modern environment. Though the work certainly does present some realist details which can remind one of some actual post-industrial city scenes, it is far more seriously concerned with the mental climate imposed upon the world by globalisation and capitalist economic order at the turn of the last century. Raymond Williams’ theoretical observations in The Country and the City can indeed motivate one to perceive Berger’s endeavour in Lilac and Flag as an attempt to identify and represent broader and more general social processes. Such a perspective proposes a reading of the image of the city in the novel as representing a form of a shared consciousness in modernity.
In one of his pieces of art criticism, an essay called “Against the Great Defeat of the World”, Berger looks at Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic painting Millennium Triptych and, focusing on its central panel The Garden of Earthly Delights, he sees it as a prophecy of the social climate in the late twentieth century. Rather then concentrating on Bosch’s clutter of plentiful human figures and chimerical hybrid creatures revelling in various activities, Berger observes the scene as a whole and says:
There is no horizon there. There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past and no future. There is only the clamour of the disparate, fragmentary present. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows through: everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatialdelirium. (“Against” 210, italics mine)
Bosch’s painting is interpreted by Berger as a prophecy predicting a world of turmoil and chaos without direction and meaning. The discontinuities of the prophesied jaggedness of a fragmentary world are both spatial and temporal: there is no sense of direction in spatial terms and, implicitly, neither is there any direction in the constancy of the relentlessly incoherent present. The immediacy of Bosch’s prophetic vision can be related to Berger’s depiction of the fragmented modernity in Lilac and Flag. As migrants and descendants of the peasantry, the main characters of the novel, Zsuzsa and Sucus, are facile and exemplary victims of such discontinuities. Cut off from the past of their distant peasant ancestors and facing a dreadfully uncertain future, nothing remains for them but to struggle through and in a strange and alienated environment where the only respite and site of meaning is provided by romantic love. Since the novel’s primary focus is upon the lives of migrants, the isolated urban experience Berger concentrates on in Lilac and Flag might be seen as radically narrow; however, from a psychological point of view, what Berger displays is a heightened sensitivity to the extreme potential of an isolated and dislocated urban experience otherwise not uncommon in the age of globalisation.
As in the case of the previous two parts of the trilogy, we will analyse the novel and its depiction of the disorienting and dislocating conditions of modernity in terms of both its formal and thematic aspects. Since the novel was published in 1990, that is to say, more than ten years after the publication of Pig Earth in 1979, it responds to the logic of the ever more intensive urbanisation and globalisation of the Western world. Therefore, before we embark upon a more detailed examination of the work, a brief section will be devoted to some of the ideas of two current theorists of space and globalisation, namely David Harvey and Manuel Castells.