John Berger’s novel ‘To The Wedding’ is on the surface a story of tragedy, however his style of writing and the devices he uses, make the novel much more than this. The main focus of ‘To The Wedding’ may appear to be Ninon and her contraction of AIDS, however this is not the case. Berger is very interested in the subjects of emigration; he has himself migrated to France, globalisation, exile, communism and capitalism. These subjects can all be found in ‘To The Wedding’. The novel begins as it means to continue with a disembodied voice.
A short poem, unexplained, as are many things in Berger’s writing, which is an indication of the novel’s subject. The ‘mariners who long to set sail’ are representative of migration. The ‘lovers on a bed’ indicate the subject of AIDS and the entire poem is symbolic of freedom, for example, the white ‘snow, the ‘sail’ and the ‘single sheet’ are all blank and therefore showing possibility.
The disembodied voice is a significant theme in the novel and it recurs frequently, often posing a rhetorical question, for example, ‘How do we decide things? Berger likes to include subtle references to themes in the novel even before the theme has been established, like small premonitions of what will come. The question ‘May I come out of it unhurt’ and the small mention of something bad happening to somebody, ‘an illness or an accident’ are two examples of this. Both can be related to the subject of AIDS, which is both an illness and an accident. Ninon does not realise she has AIDS until much further into the story, however these are clues given to the reader.
There are many further examples of this. ‘He could easily slip across without any risk’, is in Jean’s narrative and about him crossing a red light on his motorbike, however it could also be linked to sex and Ninon’s encounter with the cook. There is a reference to culture, the lyrics of a song, which predict the outcome of the novel. ‘They’re going to destroy Our casual joys. ‘ This could be associated with sex, which can be a casual joy and can result in AIDS, which will one day destroy Ninon.
We begin to see this effect about halfway through the novel ‘cold sore on the lip, circles under my eyes. ‘ One of the main themes of ‘To The Wedding’ is migration and Berger uses the technique of multiple voices to show the crossing of borders. Jean’s narrative is a journey on a motorbike and he is constantly passing borders between countries: Greece, France, and Italy. The motorbike journey is in fact a metaphor for the human, continental and fictional journey. But he is also crossing linguistic and gender borders, as is shown during his encounter with the shepherd.
They find a way of communicating between ‘Italian, French and a mountain patois’ and eventually end up with the shepherd encircling Jean with his arms around his waste on the motorbike. Berger also crosses linguistic borders with his use of language, for he occasionally uses French or Italian words and gives no explanation of their meaning. The novel also crosses the borders of normal physical ability as the reader, through Tsobanakos, can hear all of the narratives.
Berger gives us the freedom to travel to another place instantly and hear the conversations or thoughts of his characters. The fall of communism and the rise of capitalism are frequent subjects in ‘To The Wedding’. Berger lightly touches this issue, almost immediately, upon the introduction of Tsobanakos. As Berger was once a successful art critic for the BBC it is not surprising that he pays lots of attention to detail and so this first reference to globalisation could be overlooked.
The ‘Stetson’ and the ‘credit card’ are both examples of globalisation, where, even in a small marketplace in France, American culture is present. There are many small references to capitalism and globalisation, such as, the ‘freight’ trains and the ‘cranes’, which signify trade and commercialisation. The brief meeting between Jean and the shepherd is symbolic of the town meeting the countryside and the destruction of small, local culture.
Local culture and trade is continually mentioned and juxtaposed against the larger world of trade. For example, in two chapters there is the contrast of Zdena visiting a local company to buy a birdcall and Jean driving past the large corporate signs of global companies, such as ‘Bosch’. ‘To The Wedding’ is a novel, which captures many of Berger’s individual interests, but also current global issues, for example, asylum seekers and capitalism, which has resulted in terrorism.
The methods, which Berger uses to present these issues, are simple and he does not dwell on them much, but subtly includes them in his characters narrative. Berger once said, ‘Picasso is very simple, but behind this simplicity is talent’. This is true of ‘To The Wedding’, a simple story about a girls struggle with AIDS, but beneath the surface lies deeper messages, which we as the reader only notice the real meaning of once we have deconstructed the simpler messages on the surface.