ONCE IN EUROPA By John Berger Pantheon. 192 pp. $14.95
SOON, NOSTALGIA will be another name for Europe. These marvelous stories of European country life in the late 20th century are permeated with a sense of loss. Even as we read them, the world they describe is crumbling away. They are stories about the final divorce of human beings from the land, as great a change as, perhaps greater than, the transition from Stone Age to Bronze Age, yet one that has been accomplished within the lifetime of the old people who still hope to die in the houses where they were born, to which their children will never return.
Not that the deserted village is a phenomenon unique to the late 20th century. Throughout history, plague, famine and changes in agricultural practice have periodically emptied the countryside. What is unprecedented is what could be called the deruralization of the countryside, as the multinational "agribusiness" industry renders subsistence farming in general and the small farmer in particular permanently redundant. Then everywhere that is not part of a city becomes in effect a gigantic suburb, dependent on the city for all its services. This has already happened in parts of the United States, in much of Britain. In Europe, it is happening at dizzying speed.
There is a time limit on the timeless, eternal world of the peasant. The villages do not stay deserted for long. They become tourist resorts. Conurbations of weekend cottages. The land becomes so much scenery, no longer the site of labor, reduced to pure decoration.
John Berger approaches this enormous theme with infinite delicacy, through the experience of some of the men and women of the region of the Alps where he himself lives. He is often present, reticent, a witness, in these stories, which are remarkable for their quality of visionary intimacy, a sense of the sacred quality of everyday things that recalls the interiors of Vermeer. And also for their intense respect for people, their seriousness.
Berger says that these are love stories, and "Boris is Buying Horses" is, among other things, a fine study of obsession, but they are just as much stories about loneliness, that savage passion, as if love and loneliness are aspects of the same thing. In the first story, "The Accordion Player," the central figure, left alone to work his remote farm after his mother's death, finds himself suddenly weeping for the loss of the past, and also for the loss of the future. "He wept for the farm where there were no children."
For what woman would marry a peasant farmer, these days? Marry toil that remains ceaseless and an isolation that increases in direct relation to mechanization, as farming requires fewer and fewer workers? In the old days, the whole village turned out to help with the hay harvest. In summer, everybody adjourned to the high pastures in the summer, to grave the cows. What used to be celebrations are now lonely chores. "The Time of the Cosmonauts" puts this very graphically:
"A number of years ago when the Russian, Gagarin, the first man in space, was circling the earth, every one of the twenty scattered chalets at Peniel housed, each summer, cattle and women and men. So many cattle that there was only just enough grass to go round." Twenty-five years later, only an old man and a girl are there, and "there was so much grass they could let their animals graze night and day."
As it happens, this girl, Danielle, might have married a peasant farmer, if one had asked her. But the mountains, in the concrete person of the old man, filthy, almost demonic, almost heroic, offer themselves to her in such a primitive and atavistic manner that, terrified, she runs away with a young Italian. Yet she is almost in love with the old man, all the time.
EVEN SO, little that is primitive and atavistic remains in these upland farms, where now the mating season heralds the visit to the eager cows not of the bull but of the inseminator. The most primitive and atavistic thing in the mountains is a man-made horror, the manganese plant in the title story, "Once in Europa."
A small family farm, home of the woman who tells the story, is flung down like a gauntlet in the face of insensate industrialization; the plant surrounds it. The plant kills the woman's lover; it has crippled the man whom she marries. During the course of her life, its noxious fumes lay waste to the valley in which she lives.
Yet there is an infernal grandeur about the manganese plant and the devastation it wreaks. Only nature itself could be more destructive. (Can't one bolt of ligtning kill a whole flock of sheep?) There is no such grandeur about the slow erosion of the farming communities as they are encroached upon by the featureless banality which is our century's particular gift to civilization. In "Boris is Buying Horses," a woman seduces a farmer in order to gain possession of his house, which she and her husband proceed to run as a souvenir shop. This is a glimpse of a future in which the Alps have become a giant theme park.
"Once in Europa" is about history at work in daily life. This is the second volume of Berger's projected trilogy about 20th-century peasant life, which has the general title: "Into Their Labours." The first, Pig Earth, was deeply rooted in traditional life. Berger promises that the third will tell the stories of some of those who have become statistics in graphs of demographic change. It is Berger's genius -- and I don't use the world lightly -- to reveal to us how the process of history affects people we come to know as friends, so that we suffer with them, grieve for them, hope for them, realize that we, too, are part of the same process.
The final story in the book, "Play Something For Me," takes a young farmer on a day trip to Venice, where he makes love to a shop assistant during a "festa de l'unita`," which is a good urban substitute for a village festival. She urges him to leave his cows and come and work in the oil refineries at Mestri. Perhaps he will. Like the eponymous accordion player of the first story, he is a music maker. "The accordion was made for life on this earth, the left hand marking the bass and the heart-beats, the arms and shoulders labouring to make breath, and the right hand fingering for hopes!" These are not pessimistic stories, although often they will make you cry. They add to Berger's already enormous stature among contemporary British writers. :: Angela Carter's most recent books include the novel "Nights at the Circus" and the collection of stories, "Saints and Strangers."