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Book Review

Poverty's Toll on Creatures of Street

KING: A Street Story; by John Berger; Pantheon $20, 192 pages

May 20, 1999|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I heard that John Berger--the path-breaking art critic and essayist--had written a new novel, my heart soared. When I heard that the novel's narrator is a dog--and a talking one at that--my heart sank. Even as a child, I found "Doctor Dolittle" less than charming.

But "King" is not a typical talking-animal book. It is not fuzzy or life-affirming or heartwarming; in fact, it is relentlessly unsentimental and heartbreaking. Its narrator is indeed a dog, but "King" is an exploration not of man's best friend, but of his worst enemy. Berger's novel--written entirely in staccato, almost epigrammatic paragraphs--is an indictment of poverty, of the new global order, of the "barbarism of today" that "grabs everything across the world whilst it . . . talks of freedom." In Berger's blunt world--as in the real one--the poor don't inherit the earth, they lose it, and poverty crushes and degrades everyone who comes its way.

King lives with Vico and Vica, a middle-aged couple, in a squatters' camp. Vico and Vica were not always poor and homeless--in fact, they are haunted by what they used to be, and by all they have lost. We learn that she was once a shining, fresh girl and a musician; that he was once a handsome, charming inventor and factory owner; that they once had lives, things, power. Now they try to get by selling what nobody wants--chestnuts, daffodils--and, because they are destitute and unbeautiful, they provoke fear and revulsion in regular people.

"[H]ands grubby and swollen, eyes misty, making no effort to improve their lot, indifferent to hope and reasoning--this sight is disgusting and infectious," King observes of his masters, with his typically terrible clarity. Vico is a learned man, but books, too, are a memory: "To read, a man needs to love himself, not much but a little," King notes. "And Vico doesn't." And though Vico and Vica still fight a lot, they no longer talk much: "There is little to talk about when there is no future." Still, King holds fast to an image of Vico and Vica as they used to be; of Vico, he muses, "I cannot help imagining his tongue as it was before: eating melons, licking envelopes, tasting fish on the beach, looking for Vica's tongue, falling about in laughter."

King knows--and talks--about things that most dogs probably don't: the constellations, the Gulag, how to make an omelet. Philosophical questions interest him; he figures God must exist because "the world is so bad." (To which Vico replies: "Most people . . . would draw the opposite conclusion.") Yet some of the loveliest parts of this book occur when Berger evokes King's essential, physical dogginess. Here is King staring at the heavens: "Me, if I want to look at the sky, I have to do one of two things: either I put my head back, far far back, into the howling position, or I lie with my legs in the air in the position of surrender. From either of these two positions I can watch the stars and name the clouds."

Toward the end of this fable-like novel, when Vico and Vica lose what little they have, we discover that King, too, has a hidden past. Long long ago, he was a guard dog at a camp--concentration? labor? refugee?--a place of barbed wire and desperate people; perhaps this is where he learned what he knows about how powerlessness steals the soul. Or perhaps he learned it from Vica who, one day, explains to him the nature of a tulip: "You can trample on her, you can tear her apart, you can destroy her in a second, but you won't have an open tulip, you'll have a victim, you'll have made something you don't want to look at."

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