The Expectation of a Body: From A to X by John Berger

In this epistolary novel, a woman named A’ida writes to her boyfriend Xavier who has been given two life sentences for committing some non-specific political act against the totalitarian regime under which they live.  Xavier is not allowed to have any visitors and their request for a marriage license is denied three times, so they only means of contact they have is through letters.  A’ida’s missives to Xavier are full of images of her daily life—visits with friends, her work as a pharmacist, trips to the market, run ins with soldiers from the military.   The enduring message in all of her writing is her longing, always hopeful, to keep a human connection with Xavier no matter how long he is in prison.  Images of different senses pervade her letters.  First touch:

There’s such a difference between hope and expectations.  At first I believed it was a question of duration, that hope was awaiting something further away.  I was wrong.  Expectation belongs to the body, whereas hope belongs to the soul.  That’s the difference.  The two converse and excite or console each other but the dream of each one is different.  I’ve learnt something more.  The expectation of a body can last as long as any hope.  Like mine expecting yours.

Then sound and voice:

I stare at this paper I’m writing on and I hear your voice.  Voices are as different from each other as faces and far more difficult to define.  How would I describe your voice to someone so they could infallibly recognize it?  In your voice there’s a waiting—like waiting for the train to slow down a little so you can  jump.  Even when you say: O.K., let’s go, give me your hand, don’t look back!  Even then there’s this quality of waiting in your voice.

She also starts drawing pictures of hands at the of her letters which we learn that Xavier keeps taped to the wall of his cell.  One letter ends with such a drawing and these words:

In the dark folds of time maybe there’s nothing except the dumb touch of our fingers.

And our deeds.


Even in the last few letters A’ida’s hope continues:

And in our life today we are condemned to endless irregularity.  Those who impose this on us are frightened by our irregularity.  So they build walls to keep us out.  Yet their walls will never be long enough and there’ll always be ways round, over and under them.

In a single piece of writing Berger manages to compose a stellar example of the epistolary technique, a political commentary on oppressive regimes, and a story about an enduring love that survives time and space.   Whether I am reading his essays, poems or novels Berger’s writing has that special quality that forces me to look inward.  I kept thinking to myself while reading her letters : if I were A’ida, how long would I wait?



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9 responses to “The Expectation of a Body: From A to X by John Berger

  1. Okay, you have me curious. I picked up a hardcover copy of this on sale a few weeks ago. I debated it because I don’t care for epistolary novels but the edition is so gorgeous. I this case I can’t imagine the story could be told any other way and I love the quotes you’ve selected. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely post, Melissa. I’ve only read one Berger novel so far, but based on that and his non-fiction I think he’ll bring something unique to every piece of work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. buriedinprint

    Did you ever come up with an answer, regarding how long you would wait? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve not read Berger’s work at all but you make him sound like someone I should add to the ‘to be explored’ list!

    Liked by 1 person

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