Berger 2: Lost in Europe

March 10, 2017 § 2 Comments

I never met John Berger, though I nearly did. In the spirit of the enigma here’s a piece I wrote for a collection about the intersections of reading and reality, published by Penguin in 1994 (Brought to Book, eds Ian Breakwell & Paul Hammond). It’s my recollection of a trip across central Europe in 1974.
I’m in a seat by the window, but a sheet of grime shuts out the landscape going past. The train is heading north to Prague from Bratislava, but the book my nose is in takes me to Trieste. It’s John Berger’s G: 1915, not 1974; Slovenia, not Slovakia… Which is darkening anyway, outside the dirty window.
One of those journeys where you’re thrown into your imagination all the more, not because there’s nothing new to pull on your attention, but because the strangeness around you is lulled; not like being on a plane, though, where you’re dislocated, held prisoner by your placeless surroundings. Planes are distraction, not absorption; snooze, not reverie. A train travelling through the night is the space of a dream.
There are four of us in the compartment. A blank-faced, fidgety youth occupies the far corner seat next to an old woman who sits with her eyes closed, a sturdy peasant frame in a headscarf and a wide black skirt. A basket encrusted with hardened soil is planted between her feet, in it a huge pair of shears loosely wrapped in newspaper. They got on the train at different stations and in the hour or two since haven’t uttered a word. Gillian and I occasionally look up from our books and speak, in English, and neither shows any sign of noticing this foreignness.
I bury myself deeper and deeper in G: Slovenes, Italians, Austrians, riot and resistance, the Habsburg Empire in terminal spasm. In this novel time is a fraud, ‘now’ and ‘then’ collapsing into each other. Trieste itself is riven by history: a city on the cusp of shifting frontiers, languages, cultures. One of those fictions where place and time rock together in mutual instability. Where am I? When? Just the ticket for a ride across middle Europe.
We started out in Venice. Gillian had arrived along with another friend, Jan, a Czech, who had gone back to London leaving us a list of Czech friends we were to look up along the way, in Vienna, Bratislava and Prague. He and Gillian had brought me a bundle of recent paperbacks, among them G. My holiday reading.
Through the cracks in Vienna’s surface dullness, its suspect air of propriety, the past sends silent screams. At least so it seems in the fevered state I’ve entered with the onset of flu.
Schönbrunn, Prater, the Kunsthistorisches Museum are all perceived through a thickening of reality as my temperature climbs. These hallucinatory perceptions are heightened in a haze of slivovitz and schnapps that envelopes all of us: the over friendly Czech architect who gives us hospitality for two nights, the Polish-German couple who are the other houseguests. Then there’s the heat and the babble of languages in the long queue for visas at the Czech Embassy. At this point I get dizzy and faint. Where…? Against the odds we get our visas before the office closes; my head clears on the bus to Bratislava.
Bratislava is too subdued and rural, too centreless to be taken seriously as a city. The country market, the red-carpeted silence of the Lenin Museum, the high-rise flats on the outskirts where we spend a night, warmly received by two more network names: all like a rehearsal for our real destination.
But on the train Prague gets further away. Anticipation is in abeyance. Inhabiting Trieste, I find myself reluctant to arrive elsewhere and journey’s end drags me too abruptly out of fiction’s living words and sentences into the void of the waking world. On the ill-lit station platform the here and now remains obscure. The empty late-night station forecourt and the greyness that seeps towards the rest of the city give it only provisional substance. As we straggle after other passengers in the direction of the tram stop I bend Gillian’s ear, eager to talk about G now that I’ve had to stop reading it.
I’m still talking about it as the long-awaited tram jolts us off towards the centre. Everything is as dark as an East European city could be back then in the 70s, and how are we to know where to get off and how to locate the student hostel we’re supposed to stay in?
The driver, impervious to our mangled attempts at pronouncing Czech street names, waves us back along the aisle when we approach him. People stare, there are murmurs of interest at our plight, and a middle-aged woman rises and speaks to us in English. We show her the address we want to find; she says she’ll tell us when we reach the right stop. Smiles all round.
She asks are we from London. Well, yes… She has a daughter who went there in ‘68, and she hasn’t been able to see her since. We must be the daughter’s age she thinks. And she goes on talking, becoming more emotional as the tram lunges on through the still undifferentiated darkness. More people stare at us now, and at the woman, then they look away. She speaks softly.
Just as we reach the stop she scribbles an address. ‘Please come and see me,’ she says, as if our encounter had really mattered: maybe we reminded her of the exiled daughter. ‘By the way, I have an English writer staying at my flat. Perhaps you’ll meet him if you come. His name is John Berger.’
‘Look!’ I blurt, just before we leap off the tram. I’m reading one of his books.’ I pull G from my bag so that she can see its red cover. She smiles again, and gives us a wave.
‘Fancy that!’
And off we trudge into the dark, to have Prague claim us for itself and get us lost and send us wandering around in circles, tired and bedless until, around 1 a.m., it takes pity on us in the form of complete strangers on their way home. It falls to the lot of a young woman who works as a make-up artist at the TV station to give us a roof for the night. In her tiny flat she houses a splendid collection of platform shoes that have entered the country from the West, courtesy of a German boyfriend.
A few days later we think about the woman on the tram and wonder whether to pay her a visit. Our meeting had, after all, seemed fated. Odd enough even for us to doubt its reality. So one afternoon we track down the address and climb the stairs of a sombre narrow building that has two flats to each dim-lit landing. There’s not a soul about, not a sound escapes from behind any of the heavy panelled, firmly closed doors, all with solid brass nameplates.
We find the right floor, the right name. We ring the bell, whose thin tinkle barely penetrates the hush, and when nothing stirs on the other side of the door we knock, several times, hard. No one answers. We loiter for ten minutes, hoping that a neighbour might appear and gather up the loose end we now feel left with. But no one does.

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