From A to X is an epistolary novel, consisting of letters sent from a woman, A’ida, to Xavier, the imprisoned man she loves. A novel made up of letters loses many readers from the get-go. The introduction explains that the letters in From A to X are not in chronological order, but in the order Xavier had put them in when they were found in his cell. To this the author has added several letters that A’ida wrote but did not send. In between each of A’ida’s letters are brief passages, notations, scraps of memoir, that Xavier wrote on the backside of each letter. These are more random musing than narrative. The resulting novel is more puzzle than story; something a small subset of readers will enjoy. From A to X is not a book for the masses.
John Berger makes his reading audience even smaller by the content of his characters. An exchange of love letters between an imprisoned lover and a free one could make for engrossing reading, if the lover is wrongly imprisoned, even if he is rightly imprisoned but made sympathetic by circumstances or by his own remorse. Xavier, deserves to be in prison. He deserves to be there and he is not sorry either. In fact, should he get out of prison, it is clear that he would continue his life of crime. His crime, terrorism.
John Berger asks a lot from his readers. I have to give him credit for this. He is certainly willing to go far outside one’s comfort zone.
I have mixed feelings about the results. The passionate love A’ida displays in her letters is as real and as moving as anything you’ll find in any novel. Criminal lovers have been a staple of story-telling for some time. They’ve become a common feature, maybe more of movies than of books. (I suspect it’s easier to identify with them over the course of a two hour film than over the length of time spent with a novel, especially if they look as good as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.) But terrorists are still outside the realm of sympathetic characters for most readers. I think we’ve read enough, seen enough, to understand criminals who kill for money, from jealousy, or to gain position. Terrorists who coldly calculate plans to kill large numbers of innocent people to advance a political position are just not people readers can sympathize with.
Trying to come to grips with From A to X led me to look at other reviews. I found a rather loving one at The Independant which quoted a passage from the book in its conclusion:
Towards the end of the book, A’ida adopts a cat that gives her great comfort. Meanwhile, a little white kitten drops into the prison exercise yard, where Xavier and his fellow inmates quickly realise that its back is broken. They persuade the guards to take it inside, where the animal turns on her back. “With her two front paws, she wiped her face, beginning with the ears down to the white mouth, over the eyes. She wiped her eyes as if wiping away the illusions of life, and this done, she was dead… She had escaped.”
If you find the above passage moving, then From A to X is the book for you. If you found yourself rolling your eyes a little, then you’re probably glad From A to X did not make it to the Booker Prize short list. I’m in the latter camp. Just how does a little white kitten fall into a prison exercise yard, anyway?
I’m standing by this review, which I first published on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2010. That passage is just too much. Seriously.