- Lilac and Flag by John Berger
Granta, 211 pp, £12.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 14 014214 2
This is the third volume of John Berger’s trilogy, ‘Into their Labours’ (‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours,’ John 4.38). The enterprise has occupied him at intervals for 17 years, so it is not surprising that the result is a work of considerable density. But it has a simple enough theme, suggested by its title and developed at some length in a ‘Historical Afterward’ to the first volume, Pig Earth (1979). This essay seeks to ‘make the relation between particular and universal’ more explicit than it can be in a story which is not just a simple parable. It gives a plain account of an argument that is bound to be obscured, or merely implied, when transformed by a narrative that has many other things to do besides preaching, and might be impaired by too manifest a political message.
According to this thesis, peasant ways of life are coming to an end. Subsistence farmers, despite having to hand over to their landlords the surplus, or rather, as they saw it, the first fruits of their labour, nevertheless did subsist for a very long time: but they may not survive much longer. Agribusiness doesn’t need peasants, and capitalism needs a consumer culture, to which peasants cannot belong and remain peasants.
Nineteenth-century economic pressures forcibly converted peasantries into urban proletariats, which, despite their debilitating conditions of life, continued to grow larger and in that sense, at any rate, to flourish at the expense of rural communities. The differences between the world views of the peasant and the mass urban worker are great and growing greater. The peasant, we are told, is impelled by his life and his work to take a cyclical view of time, and so tends to assume that there must be a return to a primeval past of unexploited plenty, even if this return occurs only after death, while in the cities time is thought of as linear, so that urban fantasies are of a straight line leading to a future happiness.
This fundamental difference of outlook explains the impossibility of combining peasants and workers for political action, as well as the inability of townspeople to understand rural life in any but a very superficial way. Although peasant culture cannot be thought entirely independent of more general economic and political influences, it is not easily understood except in its own terms; it has a certain limited autonomy, represented by its radical archaic assumption of familial and social continuity, and by its everyday familiarity with the brute facts of birth, copulation and death. Peasants know what we know but with a special intimacy; they are simpler but wiser than we are about matters that concern all of us deeply. This is of course a version of pastoral, but expressed with as little illusion as possible, well-documented and rather desperate.
What will be lost if and when peasant societies disappear completely? We shall be left with nothing but all the failed urban alternatives: the brutality of corporate capitalism, the inevitable disappointment of those confident hopes of progress, the scandal of co-existent plenty and scarcity. Even the apparent blessing of increased leisure turns into a curse by creating more ways of consumerist oppression. The endless acquisition of wealth makes not for progress towards some green remote Cockaigne, but for war, genocide and the destruction of the environment. Another less obvious casualty is history, for under these conditions the past must die, if only because credit has no past or present reality, existing only as a prospect of future fulfilment. History is bunk to capitalists, not to peasants.
Not content with hearsay, Berger reversed the usual emigrant’s route from country to town, and has lived the life of a peasant about as faithfully as that can be done by an urban writer who is also, as it happens, a foreigner. Another intrusive chapter in Pig Earth explains how close to the life of a peasant community it is possible to get if your main purpose is to represent it truly in writing. There is a certain helpful complicity, since peasants also represent their common experience by telling stories, but there are also obvious disparities – in language, religion, kinship, physical endurance, and so on. From the beginning Berger has been aware of both his qualifications and his limitations as a sort of live-in fellow worker doubling as ethnographer. He is at once close to and distanced from peasant life, a participant but also a somewhat detached witness, expert in both detail and doctrine: an observer of those more usual emigrations from country to city, which he describes in other books as well as these. In the trilogy he submits the detail and the doctrine to the transformations of a distinctive individual talent.
The first two volumes are made up of narratives of varying length, the most remarkable being a ninety-page story called ‘The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol’, in Pig Earth, which, as a note puts it, consists of tales ‘set against the traditional life of a mountain village’. The second volume, Once in Europa (1989), studies the ‘modernisation’ of that life, and deals largely with the relations between men and women. This last volume is about the necessary squalor of the lives of the urban exiles, their absorption into a world of petty crimes, petty bosses and petty policemen, themselves less than a generation away from their mountain villages.
Berger’s style imitates that direct physical contact with peasant life he has sought for himself, though like the man the style is inevitably in some ways very sophisticated. The trilogy opens with a detailed description of the birth of a calf. There is much emphasis on the generative cycle. Yet he never sounds very like the Lawrence of The Rainbow, much less like Cold Comfort Farm, and the reason must be that he really can write; people who can write never sound like anybody else, no matter how good the others may be, or how similar their material. Lilac and Flag, unlike the other two volumes a continuous narrative, resembles them in being a genuine labour of the imagination. The precision of observation given to country matters is now devoted to the lives of city workers and derelicts. He can describe the operation of a giant crane with the same attentiveness he gave in the earlier volumes to the beauty and resonance of a good scythe or to the carnal details of the slaughterhouse.
The volume is subtitled ‘An Old Wives’ Tale of a City’. The narrator is supposed to be an old woman still nostalgically in touch with the old peasant culture, a shadowy but fitfully omniscient figure, occasionally interrupting the story with brief gnomic meditations: ‘Love treasures hands like nothing else. Perhaps other parts are more cherished, more kissed, more dreamt of ... but hands are treasured like nothing else, because of all they have taken, made, given, planted, picked, fed, stolen, caressed, arranged, let drop in sleep, offered.’ The story itself is of two young lovers, the girl a stripper, with a rebel brother who deals in drugs, the youth, intelligent but rootless, aspiring to be a crane-driver but unable and unwilling to avoid crime and its consequences. The city in the slums and shanty-towns of which they exist is rendered as a vague unidentifiable capital, its suburbs named after those of big cities all over the world. He wants to show that a love affair between two such strays, unashamedly conman and slut, can yet be sincere and joyful, though in the end doomed by conditions that, having made them what they are, forbid such simple satisfactions.
The underlying doctrine is occasionally given dejected expression by such characters as the girl’s brother, who explains that the hero, however justified, should not have struck the foreman at the building site where he worked: ‘We’re born outside the law and whatever we do we break it ... They’re born inside and whatever they do they’re protected. If you need to hit without killing, hit those who love you, not them.’ The reason why Berger’s characters can say this sort of thing is that they otherwise talk like human beings and live in a context which justifies their despair.
The lovers delight for a moment in what stolen money can buy. Their ideal is a world in which everything desirable is free, and after they are crushed the book ends with an image of such a world, a luxury liner sailing over water and land, back to their village, achieving that cyclical return proper to the archaic, peasant’s sense of time they have not yet entirely lost. This terminal fantasy has Berger’s characteristic boldness: you feel that if you start worrying about it, begin to fidget, you will be called to order by the fixed impassioned stare that was once famous on the television. You are being told that you should urgently consider whether you haven’t been thinking about these matters lazily or carelessly and getting them wrong. Readers are required to be as serious as writers – more precisely, as this writer, who, unlike some remarkable writers, is also a serious man.