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Love letters, unimprisoned

From A to X A Story in Letters John Berger Verso: 198 pp., $22.95

August 31, 2008|Carolyn Kellogg

THE LONELY A'ida writes to her imprisoned lover, Xavier -- her letters form the bulk of the epistolary romance "From A to X." We hear from Xavier only in the notes he has made on the back of those letters, in which A'ida mixes the details of her day-to- day life with moments of genuine beauty and longing.

"Now I look down at my hands that want to touch you and they seem obsolete because they haven't touched you for so long."

A'ida draws a hand with this passage, as if to reach through the page and touch Xavier in his cell. With each letter, she invites him into her invented world. She recounts a flight they took together in a tiny plane, vividly detailing her exhilaration at their loops and glides, as if with her words she could bring her lover the freedom of the sky.

Bringing a world to life with words isn't just what A'ida is doing; it's what novelists do. And this is Booker Prize-winning, 81-year-old novelist and critic John Berger, who is not afraid of using a fractured narrative ("G.") to tell a metastory. Readers are both pulled in by the love letters and encouraged to consider them as a narrative construct.

The conceit, as outlined in the first pages, is that the letters were found, in three bundles, in a closing prison; Berger has added others that were written by A'ida but never sent. "I have placed them in the packets where it seemed to me they fitted," he writes. "It becomes clear on reading them that the letters were not arranged in chronological order."

The way they have been organized is important to understanding this story; readers, and A'ida, must find meaning outside of time. "As soon as they gave you two life sentences," an early letter from A'ida reads, "I stopped believing in their time."

The reason for Xavier's harsh punishment is that he's accused of being a founding member of a terrorist network. His few notes focus on dwindling natural resources, song lyrics and quotes from political activists. He is polemical, external; in contrast, A'ida recounts stories of her work in a pharmacy and time shared with friends.

Yet even these details are not necessarily what they seem. Up front, Berger tells us that the letters, under political scrutiny, are likely in code. So A'ida's everyday details take on the weight of possibility. Does she mean radishes, or something else? When canasta is not canasta, anything might carry a secret message.

A'ida and Xavier are pseudonyms, of course. Xavier -- "X" -- is a place holder, the unknown. A'ida evokes the princess/slave of Verdi's opera. Who might be watching these two -- and who or what they might be fighting against -- is deliberately vague.

A'ida's letters reference a Moroccan activist; she uses Turkish, French and Spanish words; she has friends with Spanish and Arabic names and cites a location that existed only in ancient Egypt. Her apartments, dogged by enemy helicopters, are no place and everyplace, part of a pan-national world of the dispossessed.

While printed and bound, "From A to X" strives to stretch beyond traditional narrative constraints. Berger invites the reader to imagine that A'ida's letters could be placed in any order -- "you can change them" -- and A'ida reiterates that her recountings are subjective, perhaps invented. When she describes her initial meeting with welder Xavier, with clipped, almost bodice-ripping language -- "You wore a leather apron and apart from that a pair of shorts" -- she notes, "we can change it, if you like."

Yet as many levels as this novel has, within its abstractions and politics, it ultimately folds back into its own overflowing heart. What are messages between lovers but the invention of a shared, secret world? A'ida and Xavier ache to be together. The two life sentences he is serving may not be consecutive; one is his and one is hers.

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Carolyn Kellogg is the lead blogger for Jacket Copy at www.latimes.com/books. She is also the host of www.pinkyspaperhaus.com.

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