How do we, as writers, capture the imagination of our readers the moment they open our book? There are countless classes/workshops/books/articles that cover this territory – how to utilize language, setting, “hook”, character, description, action, the unexpected…in order to ensnare the reader and keep them turning the page. It is a worthy question, and even worthier exploration – if you, like me – are a writer.
This morning, I turn to one book, and one writer in particular: John Berger, and his very very fine novel To The Wedding.
Have you read this? If your reply is only two letters long, then I must say to you – Read it, for you will not be disappointed…if you, like me, happen to savor language, imagery, the lilting beauty of poetic expression, and love and all the flapping ends that flitter through the cranial pathways and aching footsteps and lusty heartbeats of its possessor.
There is an economy of words in this novel that betrays the expectation of how an emotionally rich narrative, such as this, would spill forth. The simplicity of the narrator’s observations magnify the mastery of Berger’s writing by eliminating the “precious,” the “veil” and instead, deliver a direct engagement with the circumstances that the narrator, and subsequent characters, must face.
Here are the opening pages:
Wonderful a fistful of snow in the mouths Of men suffering summer heat Wonderful the spring winds For mariners who long to set sail And more wonderful still the single sheet Over two lovers on a bed.
“I like quoting ancient verses when the occasion is apt. I remember most of what I hear, and I listen all day but sometimes I do not know how to fit everything together. When this happens I cling to words or phrases which seem to ring true.
In the quartier around Plaka, which a century or so ago was a swamp and is now where the market is held, I’m called Tsobanakos. This means a man who herds sheep. A man from the mountains. I was given this name on account of a song.
Each morning before I go to the market I polish my black shoes and brush the dust off my hat which is a Stetson. There is a lot of dust and pollution in the city and the sun makes them worse. I wear a tie too. My favorite is a flashy blue and white one. A blind man should never neglect his appearance. If he does, there are those who jump to false conclusions. I dress like a jeweler and what I sell in the market are tamata.
Tamata are appropriate objects for a blind man to sell for you can recognize one from another by touch. Some are made of tin, others silver and some of gold. All of them are as thin as linen and each one is the size of a credit card. The word tama comes from the verb tazo, to make an oath. In exchange for a promise made, people hope for a blessing or a deliverance. Young men buy a tama of a sword before they do their military service, and this is a way of asking: May I come out of it unhurt.
Or something bad happens to somebody. It may be an illness or an accident. Those who love the person who is in danger make an oath before God that they will perform a good act if the loved one recovers. When you are alone in the world, you can even do it for yourself.
Before my customers go to pray, they buy a tama from me and put a ribbon through its hole, then they tie it to the rail by the ikons in the church. Like this they hope God will not forget their prayer.
Into the soft metal of each tama is pressed an emblem of the part of the body in danger. An arm or a leg, a stomach or a heart, hands, or, as in my case, a pair of eyes. Once I had a tama on which a dog was embossed, but the priest protested and maintained that this was a sacrilege. He understands nothing, this priest. He has lived all his life in Athens, so he doesn’t know how in the mountains a dog can be more important, more useful than a hand. He can’t imagine that the loss of a mule may be worse than a leg which does not heal. I quoted the Evangelist to him: Consider the ravens: they do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn. Yet God feeds them…When I told him this, he pulled at his beard and turned his back as if on the Devil.
Bouzouki players have more to say than priests about what men and women need.
What I did before I went blind, I’m not going to tell you. And if you had three guesses they’d all be wrong.
The story begins last Easter. On the Sunday. It was mid-morning and there was a smell of coffee in the air. The smell of coffee drifts farther when the sun is out. A man asked me whether I had anything for a daughter. He spoke in broken English.
A baby? I enquired.
She’s a woman now.
Where is she suffering? I asked.
Everywhere, he said.
Perhaps a heart would be suitable? I eventually suggested, feeling with my fingers to find a tama in the tray and holding it out to him.
Is it made of tin? His accent made me think he was French or Italian. I guess he was my age, perhaps a little older.
I have one in gold if you wish, I said in French. She can’t recover, he replied.
Most important is the oath you make, sometimes there’s nothing else to do.
I’m a railwayman, he said, not a voodoo man. Give me the cheapest, the tin one.
I heard his clothes squeaking as he pulled out a wallet from his pocket. He was wearing leather trousers and a leather jacket.
There’s no difference between the tin and the gold for God, is there?
You came here on a motorbike?
With my daughter for four days. Yesterday we drove to see the temple of Poseidon.
You’ve seen it? You have been there? Excuse me.
I touched my black glasses with a finger and said: I saw the temple before this.
How much does the tin heart cost?
Unlike a Greek, he paid without questioning the price.
What is her name?
NINON. He spelt out each letter.
I will think of her, I said, arranging the money. And as I said this, I suddenly heard a voice. His daughter must have been elsewhere in the market. Now she was beside him.
My new sandals – look! Handmade. Nobody would guess I’ve just bought them. I might have been wearing them for years. Maybe I bought them for my wedding, the one that didn’t happen.
The strap between the toes doesn’t hurt? the railwayman asked.
Gino would have liked them, she said. He has good taste in sandals.
The way they tie at the ankle is very pretty.
They protect you if you walk on broken glass, she said.
Come here a moment. Yes, the leather’s nice and soft.
Remember, Papa, when I was small and you dried me after my shower and I sat on the towel on your knee, and you used to tell me how each little toe was a magpie who stole this and that and this and flew away…
She spoke with a cool clipped rhythm. No syllable slurred or unnecessarily prolonged.
Voices, sounds, smells bring gifts to my eyes now. I listen or I inhale and then I watch as in a dream. Listening to her voice I saw slices of melon carefully arranged on a plate, and I knew I would immediately recognize Ninon’s voice should I hear it again.”
5 simple pages and yet, an entire world is presented, along with mystery and curiosity and questions a plenty to keep the reader wrapped around Berger’s finger. …. or perhaps that’s just me :)
Happy Reading All! and Happy Writing Always!