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Research: Canada
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Critic to: Photocopies (John Berger)

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Literature: Critic
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By: Yalda Mahmoudi
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Photocopies
A critical essay on John Berger’s


John Berger’s Photocopies is made up twenty-nine essays; each essay presents a short scene of meditative portrait of a person or a couple of people, usually set in a clearly realized landscape. There are several pieces about individual farm workers, one about the stillbirth of a calf, a meditation on Simone Weil, which holds the subject’s identity back until almost the end of the piece, a reminiscence of a Czech painter living in Paris, a tale about reading a story to three men in prison, a meditation on the relationship of the cruel landscape of the Greek island and the Greek’s concept of the flesh, and the variety of other topics. They are narratives, that is, stories told by Berger, or told to him and retold to us. Sometimes they are reflections on a place, a ferry trip in the Mediterranean. The author often features in these scenes as an observer, standing quietly to one side. In this essay, the purpose is to give a review of this book, from my take on it.

This book is a sort of drawing that is both records and investigates. Berger traces in words moments lived by himself and others in various parts of Europe during recent years, events from rooted in the past that spin like tops, off and up into the future. This collection of the short stories, with its surprising perspectives, meditations on words and people and its fascination with what seems at first to be the details of life will be a welcome reminder of why people continue to read this stimulating writer. Each story is a “photocopy” of the life of a person, who made an impression on Berger’s own life. There, reductions of lives each have a unique resonance that brings the reader into a wholly new world. Separate as their worlds, however, there are hidden stands that tie these stories together as well and it is these stands, not the facts and figures of daily life, that comprise the true biography of any life in this world among people. Berger’s portrait of human connections reveals more about him than it does about the people themselves and we are treated to a fleeting, yet profound insight impossible, when writers sit down to write about themselves. His stories can be said to be a still-life painting.

Most of the characters seem to be special friends of his, though a number are strangers. The blurb says that each scene is about someone for whom Berger felt a kind of love, though in the book he is scrupulous in not exposing his personal feelings. It is a set of concerns and a tone of voice-patient, engaged yet restrained, and painfully clear-sighted, that you want to agree with. The piece of Barcelona, to take an example contains on oblique references to a “she”, who is absent. The veils of reticence are lifted just enough, at the very end, for us to learn that she died eleven months before, and was known to the author, we presume Berger was close to this friend, but we are not told anything of their relationship, or of her age or occupation. She may have been an old cleaning lady he knew, or a farmer’s wife, such people appear elsewhere in the book. She may have been his beloved wife, or his only daughter. We never get to know; and because the words have done their job of drawing us inside the writer’s thinking mind, and because his restraint is paradoxically so moving, we want to know who this woman was, and how she mattered to him.

Many of these pieces are explicitly concerned with how we look at others and how we interpret what we see. One, for example, is about an old man, who seems very youthful, who leaps away like a hare. Slowly, the picture swims into focus and we realize we are looking at Henry Cartier-Bresson. Berger notices Cartier-Bresson’s handwriting and sees it as remarkably maternal, of all things. He mentions Cartier-Bresson’s three escapes from German prisoner or war camp, and his liking for a treatise on Japanese archery. Berger asks him about the concept he invented, the ‘decisive moment’ in quotes Einstein: “I have such a feeling of solidarity with everything alive…” But, Berger does not confront him with the question why; he abandoned the art, at which he excelled. No doubt, it is a painful question and it might well be unanswerable.

In conclusion, I believe that this is a marvelous look, because themes of age, loneliness and death add a sense of solemnity, but also act as a foil for the shimmering moments of life, making them even brighter, there is such economy of words, such brutal honesty, and such ruthless insight into the souls of these people that in less than five pages, each story captures its moment. Such breathtaking clarity and grasp of the truth is a tribute, not only to a truly fine writer, but also to a deep and compassionate souls. Berger makes you believe in goodness: not an impossible state out of our reach, but a capacity in all of us to do with honesty, not faking.

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Research: Critic, Speech, Novel

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