WHEN A WRITER is as concerned with ideology as John Berger has been in his art criticism (and, to a lesser degree, in his filmscripts, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 and La Salamandry, and a novel, G), naturally one worries that his fiction may have on its surface an irritating didactic glare. In Pig Earth one immediately sees down into lovely, lingering details:
"Lloyse, Arthaud's wife, was killed by a boulder which fell from the rockface. They were both asleep in their bed. Where the boulder first hit the earth, it made a hole big enough to bury a horse in. Nevertheless the boulder continued to roll down the slope. Slowly. When it reached the house, it didn't crash right through it. It just broke down one wall and crushed half the bed. Lloyse was killed outright and Arthaud woke up, unhurt, beside the boulder."
Or, "Miserably and terribly during the next five minutes one of his blue eyes turned entirely red, blood red, and he never saw out of it again. Nor did he ever recover from the shock of losing his eye. He believed himself repulsively disfigured . . . . Glass eyes were not easy to find. One day a friend drove by cart to A . . . and there in a barber's shop he found a whole bottle of them. 'Give me the bluest you have,' said the friend. Pepe's father would not wear it. Instead, Pepe8 who was the youngest of three sons and his father's favorite, had to walk in front of him whenever he went out, to warn those they met not to look into his father's eyes."
I hope these startling examples of Berger's story-telling will lure readers to Pig Earth , a collection of short fiction, poetry and essays (the first volume of a planned trilogy) in which Berger evokes with remarkable economy a peasant world world as resilent to history, as sensual and as unpredictable as the village of Macondo built so lavishly by Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Berger, an Englishman, lives in a peasant village in France. He is, of course, both a subject and teller of village gossip. His identity -- outsider and writer -- places him in a unique position to serve as a witness, a verifier, of this gossip, which "in fact, is close, oral, daily history" that helps the villae define itself. To Berger, the sum of generations of gossip, tales and legends in a peasant village is a continuous communal portrait, in which "everybody is portrayed and everybody portrays," and on which the work never stops. "And one must remember," he writes in an introductory essay, "that the making of this . . . portrait is not vanity or a pastime: it is an organic part of the life of the village. Should it cease, the village would disintegrate. The stranger's contribution is small, but it is something essential." Yet why, beyond entertainment, should peasant tales concern the rest of us?
Berger supplies an answer in the book's concluding essay. It is not because the traditional peasant way of life should be idealized and preserved. Nor does Berger offer the peasant experience as a practical antidote to the "further consolidation of corporate capitalism in all its brutalism," even though this experience may be more valuable than "the continually reformed, disappointed, impatient progressive hope of an ultimate victory." No: Berger's peasant tales reflect a peasant suspicion of progress. A natural, intuitive outgrowth of their constant struggle to exist suspicion -- of a new tractor, of outsiders, of a change in the cycle of work -- forms the first and only line of peasant defense against "progress" they see will separate them from their land, relegate them to the futureless substratum of the urban poor. Berger contends that, by eliminating the peasantry, and with them their tales and suspicious, capitalism (or Stalinist collectivization) threatens to destroy an irreplacable part of human history. Loss of the peasantry's enduring wisdom of the earth will diminish the ability of all of us to resist progress' next false step.
An essayist of less integrity or an artist of lower rank might have been tempted to force moral on enchantment, leaving us with the dull headache of a parable. In Pig Earth we have the double rarity of a fine work of art and an author's fearlessly intelligent explanation of why he created it.
Art in a broad sense is the subject of the essays collected in About Looking. Here Berger examines both obscure works and masterpieces, for he is less concerned with fixing artistic merit ("an essentially diletitante process") than he is with the experience of the artist, and with the phenomena of viewing art and criticizing it. His essays are short, eminently readable, pleasantly free of the crutches and plastercasts of jargon one often finds in art criticism. He has a fine eye for detail and delights in provocative interpretation.
For example: Berger was haunted by the confusion of foreground and background in Woodcutter in the Forest , a painting by Turkish artist Seker Ahmet Pasa (1841-1907). Berger points out the academic mistakes of perspective in the work, but to him the mistakes make the painting "accord to the experience of forest." The viewer is both making his way through and seeing himself engolfed by the forest. He claims the techniques Seker Ahmet learned in his studies at the Louvre would have led him to paint the forest as merely a scene, something the woodcutter was in front of, as is the case with the famous, nostalgic oils of Millet, the subject of Berger's preceding essay. For some reason -- personal background, influences of Turkish art? -- Seker Ahmet painted the forest "as a presence that was so pressing that he could not, as he had learnt to do in Paris, maintain his distance from it." The painting thus illustrates that "there are truths which can only uncovered . . . in the folds between cultures and epochs."