KING, A Street Story, by John Berger

John Berger

I don’t know whether John Berger will be a discovery for most of you, dear visitors of this blog, but until I read his obituary in The Guardian, quite by accident, I had never heard of him.

John Berger was born in London on November 5th, 1926, and died January 2nd, 2017. He was a talented essayist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright and art critic who was also a gifted painter in his own right. It seems, though, that he will be remembered principally for his ground-breaking television series Ways of Seeing, which was “his apotheosis as a populariser”, and for his novel G, for which he won the Booker prize (then gave it away in a controversial gesture), the James Tait Black Memorial prize and the Guardian Fiction prize.

With philosophical/political views that were Marxist humanist, it is coherent that in 1974, he made the decision to settle in a remote peasant community at Quincy, in the Haute-Savoie region of France. Michael Mc Nay explains:

Visitors to Berger noticed how the villagers took to him and his family as easily as he had to them. The outcast in his native London had come home. Here Berger’s remote situation allowed him the time and serenity to stitch his writing into a seamless garment fitting to the village life in which he helped whenever extra hands were needed, at harvest time or with animal husbandry.”

 

It was thus a lovely surprise—a wake up to the life and work of this fascinating British artist-writer—when I found a reference to his fiction in Paul Yoon’s piece, mentioned in my previous post about the genius of the two-day novel. Yoon has chosen KING: A STREET STORY for his list, which in fact takes place in a single day. It’s a small book, just 189 pages, and fits nicely into the newly minted SMALL TREASURES category here at the Online Book Club. Of KING, Yoon says:

“The book taught me so much about how a story can move, how generous we should be to the characters we create.”

The tenderness in his words are what drew me to this title, but when I saw the author’s name, I thought that perhaps I had misread…This was a John Berger novel? It seemed so incongruous.

It’s funny how one thing leads to another in life…

– I know that Montreal playwright and novelist Ann Lambert’s next mystery novel will include the theme of homelessness, and more specifically the relationship between street people and their dogs;

– I remember, years back now, Pops (Father Emmett Johns) and the Dans la Rue organization in Montreal setting up a free veterinary clinic for the animals of the homeless, whether pet rats or more commonly, dogs;

-And I was reminded of the article I read years ago on the editorial page of the Montreal Gazette, and written by a veterinarian, which was about how modern pet owners—modern dog owners specifically—made their animals sick. How the way we treat animals is unhealthy, both physically and psychologically.

Then he asked the question: Who are the calmest dogs you ever see? And his answer was: the dogs of street people. He argued that they were almost always off leash. That they were remarkably calm and composed, quietly sitting by their masters’ sides. That they rarely had any of the neurotic, irritating, aggressive behaviours of so many pet dogs we see in people’s homes or in parks.

And he explained that it was because these street dogs, though they might be underfed and in need of treatment for parasites—much like their masters—were dogs who had a much healthier relationship with their humans. These dogs had purpose, and that was to look out for their master’s wellbeing. They were usually well treated by their humans. They were vigilant and bonded to their masters—living in constant companionship, and so, in many ways, content animals. And they were most definitely not pets.

John Berger with Tilda Swinton

And so we arrive at King, a street dog. Quite big and strong, but never described in any great detail, King’s life experience, which has made him wise and street savvy, is what has brought him to an unnamed city that is clearly European, with street names like Ardeatina, and a derelict area known to its inhabitants as Saint Valéry. Situated close to the M.1000, Saint Valéry is the space where a community of squatters have gathered over time, under the supervision of Jack, also known as The Baron, a former soldier, who collects a small rent from the squatters in exchange for the kind of protection that is possible in such circumstances.

The community that has grown around Jack is small, but tightly gathered. It includes Anna, a fragile old woman who has made her home in an abandoned concrete block that may have once housed an electrical transformer; Joachim and his cat, Catastrophe; Malak, a younger woman and her companion Liberto; Danny, who lives in a wrecked container; Marcello; Alfonso who sings; Saul, a more recent neighbour who has taken over Luc’s place after the latter’s suicide (by jumping off a bridge); Corinna and finally, Vico and Vica, who live together in their hut. It’s there that King settles most often and to them that he feels the strongest allegiance; it’s of them that he is the most protective.

 

We know this because Berger’s story is told through King’s eyes, in his voice, and the unsentimental, unjudging tale he tells takes place over a mere twenty-four hours. The day begins like most days as the community of squatters, specifically Vico and Vica, go through their usual routines, aimed at collecting enough money and food to survive a while longer, by begging or selling the chestnuts or radishes they gave gathered, while making plans to dine on the large piece of meat that King has stolen from the butcher shop. The days are long and monotonous. Vico, especially, is beginning to fade into madness.

“Asleep a face is never the same as when awake. His [Vico’s] is older when asleep, hers [Vica’s] is younger. Being their sentry, I’m an expert on their sleeping faces. Is it because I’m in love with Vica that I find her looking younger when she’s asleep? He is more exhausted than she is, and when his muscles relax the face caves in, becomes a ruin. Dreaming, she goes back to when things were good. And he goes forward, I think, forward to the end.”

 And also:

Madness isn’t a wrong path, it’s an undergrowth which covers all paths.”

 

The reader suspects that all of Saint Valéry’s inhabitants have experienced worse in their lifetimes. What are their individual stories? What has caused them to relinquish their grasp on the dream of a life of safety and a minimum of physical comfort and security? Was there not a time when they were rooted? When they belonged somewhere? Is it simply the cruelty of this world?

“The passersby see three more plague victims. Deep down everybody knows that nobody is telling the truth about this plague. Nobody knows whom it selects and how. And so everywhere there is fear of infection. […]

 The sight we offer, the three of us—an old man, and old woman, and their dog in a delivery doorway screeching at each other and standing on pieces of cardboard, hands grubby and swollen, eyes misty, making no effort to improve their lot, indifferent to hope and reasoning—this sight is disgusting and infectious. It saps confidence, and a lack of confidence diminishes immunity.

 Flush them out, mutters a man with a telephone in his hand, they should be hosed off the street. As he passes, he kicks at me.”

A Crawler-Dozer

The fact remains that their world—the fragile stasis they have achieved—is about to be destroyed. The land of Saint Valéry has been sold for development, and the first to alert its inhabitants is Jack. The illegal squatters will be forcibly removed that very night. A transport is sent to scoop the squatters up. A bulldozer is used to destroy their dwellings and meagre property. Tear gas is deployed.

Ultimately, they are all dispossessed.

“Their eyes were burning. They waited because they did not know where to go. They were breathing easily. The next breath was assured. Beyond the next breath they did not know where to go. So they waited.”

KING is a stunning, unique and affecting novel that shines a light into the heart of John Berger. It moved me to continue searching out more literature of the disenfranchised and dispossessed. It left me thinking of the men and women of Montreal who have hung on through another cold winter and of those who let go their grasp.

 

“Who and what survives destruction can only make a story in another life.”

(From the novel KING)

Street dog

 

 

 

 

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