The conceit behind From A to X is that it is a collection of letters that author John Berger found in a cell of an old prison. The occupant of the cell, Xavier, was serving two life sentences for being a founding member of a terrorist network. The letters are from his lover, A’ida. Berger reproduces them in the order Xavier had arranged them, which is not necessarily chronological order, and he includes a few letters that A’ida wrote but never mailed. Also included are Xavier’s own notes found on the backs of most of the letters. These are usually quotes about fighting the powerful. Berger also suggests that A’ida is including coded messages. For example, canasta most likely refers to work with the terrorist organization. The organization, its location, and the precise nature of its ideology remains unknown (although there are hints throughout the book that would allow attentive readers to narrow it down).
Now this is an awesome concept. Epistolary novels almost always please me, and if you add in a nonchronological plot that needs to be untangled along with hidden clues in the text, I’m there. After reading the introduction, I was psyched. However, as the book went on, it became clear that either I’m not nearly clever enough to see what’s going on, or the book is really just a series of love letters with an encoded message that has already been explained. This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad book, but I was a little disappointed that the promised high-concept narrative was just a concept.
The letters themselves tell of A’ida’s daily life, her work at a local pharmacy, and some of the violence she and her neighbors must cope with. She also reminisces about her past with Xavier and muses on the meaning of life and love. The anecdotes she shares are the best part of the book. Some of the stories are quite moving, and Berger’s narrative writing is great. But when A’ida gets philosophical, the book gets tedious. There’s a whole section on ligands and angels that just seemed incomprehensible. (Might there have been a code there? I sort of hope so, because otherwise, yuck!) The ending, however, is intriguing, and it is the one point in the narrative where it seems clear that A’ida (and Xavier in his note on the final letter) is talking about something other than what is written on the page. That last letter could be read in several ways, and the ambiguity is just what I was hoping to find throughout the book.
Upon reflection on the book as a whole, my feeling of disappointment that the book failed to live up to its potential has shifted to one of outrage at being manipulated. Berger writes a story about terrorists and practically forces his readers to sympathize with them. We get letters about A’ida missing Xavier, about people being shot in A’ida’s hometown, about Apache helicopters hovering over a factory where A’ida says some of “our people” are hiding, about A’ida helping a diabetic man, about convicts weeping over a dead kitten. And oblique references to canasta. For the record, I don’t mind reading stories that take a nuanced approach to terrorism, that show how people feel driven to it, that recognize that terrorists have families and loved ones who mourn their imprisonment, or that expose the problems with how nations fight against terrorism. But what Berger does is much, much more subversive. He hides the crimes of A’ida and Xavier so deeply that we forget about them and side with them and against X’s captors. Xavier’s short notes are the only hints we get at his true feelings. Note that the letters offer no real defence of their terrorist actions or try to show they aren’t guilty or that they feel sorry, any of which might be fair means for eliciting sympathy. But Berger hides their crimes in the shadows. Not fair, not fair at all.
This book is my fourth for the From the Stacks challenge.