I like a good story and distinctive imagery in the books that I read, but I am always impressed with unique narrative texture. Give me a book that does something different with its narrative perspective and I’m immediately interested in understanding how that unique narrator influences the story as a whole. Books like Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy or That Night with their strangely effaced first person narrators telling a story which belongs to someone else, or Gordimer’s The Conservationist with its acute third person speaking directly to another character are some favorite examples.
When I first read John Berger’s To the Wedding several years ago it was this aspect of the book that first caught my attention. One of the narrators, the one who completes the story in full, is a blind street peddler the main characters cross paths with only once while visiting Greece. The effect is then layered because they encounter him at an advanced point in their story. Although it isn’t presented that way to the reader, of course. We meet this narrator right away, and then he moves us backward with omniscient powers to catch the reader up.
I mentioned before that there is a magical, almost fairytale-like quality to this novel, and this mainly comes from this narrator and his godlike ability to see the past and future actions of the novel’s characters. I wondered a lot when I first read the book why Berger would use such a perspective, mainly because at first glance it seems an almost arbitrary choice. Why involve an outside character as a narrator, especially a character who has one conversation with another character and then remains completely outside the story? In another country even.
To get further into this, it is important to know a bit more about the story. When the novel opens, Jean is at a market stand buying a tamata, a kind of healing charm and prayer offering, from the street peddler in Athens. We learn through their short conversation that Ninon, Jean’s daughter, a woman in her twenties, is very ill. Deathly ill. The scene then shifts, jumping back in time to Ninon’s childhood and moving forward to her young adulthood. Throughout these flashbacks, the reader is given other scenes as Jean and Zdena, Ninon’s mother, who has been separated from Jean since Ninon was a young girl, begin preparations for their daughter’s wedding. The event will take place in Italy and so both parties are traveling across Europe to meet up for the celebration.
Slowly, as the characters travel, as the past comes forward, Ninon’s tragedy is revealed. I won’t give it away here, because it does come as a surprise when it is finally explained. But it is within her tragedy that the Greek peddler’s voice becomes relevant to the story. At least this is how I finally settled it. Despite the fact that his voice is compelling and highly effective, no one else could tell her story with as much empathy as a man who was not always blind but is now condemned to a life of darkness and helplessness.
The novel doesn’t belong exclusively to Ninon and her fiancé Gino. It is also about Jean and Zdena, who are meeting again after ten years to confront their daughter’s tragedy. It is about Gino’s courageous optimism, his father Federico’s painful but practical resignation. And it is about unexpected calamities and how humans navigate such treacherous waters.
Besides the intricate narrative stance and Berger’s simply stunning imagery, I loved how the novel combined hints of the fantastic and ethereal descriptions with down-to-earth characters and dialogue. The mixture of these two moods created something very special. It transformed the novel modern fable, able to discuss a certain horror while maintaining moments of pure elegance.