Saturday, August 14, 2010

Short-a-Day: John Berger's "A Brush"

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, September 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 0.

This loose encounter doesn't feel like a story; at best, it's an overwrought impression. "I want to tell you the story of how I gave away this Sho Japanese brush," Berger begins, and already the story is cluttered--why the need to clarify that this is a Japanese brush? Surely his audience realizes this; if not, why bother with the Sho? In any case, that opening doesn't have nearly enough weight--and no momentum--to carry the next dozen paragraphs, which describe the brush and then the environment: "The setting for the story was a municipal swimming pool in a popular, not chic, Paris suburb, where, from time to time, I was something of a habitue." It's precise to the point that it veers toward technical writing, and Berger's asides don't help matters: do we really care about the bureaucratic syntax of the notices on the walls? Does context like this--"Around 1945 Fernand Leger painted a series of canvasses about plongeurs--divers in a swimming pool"--help the story, or does it pull us back? For me, a sentence like this pulls me out of the fiction: "The Chinese master Qi Basishi (1863-1957) loved drawing frogs, and he made the tops of their heads very black, as if they were wearing bathing caps." 

Mind you, the story is half-over before he starts to describe a woman "in her late fifties and I assumed was Vietnamese [sic]" and "the man with the brave carved face [who] was presumably her husband," two constant strangers at the pool who he eventually strikes up conversation with. All of this plodding gets us to yet another history lesson, as he learns that she's actually from Cambodia, which she left "after Sihanouk had been ousted with the probable hep of the CIA and in the year when the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot had taken over the capital and begun the enforced deportation of its 2 million inhabitants to the countryside, where, living in communities with no individual property, they had to learn to become New Khmers!" I'm sorry, I read fiction for a more personal perspective than that, and Berger's "brushstrokes," if you will, are so paper-thin that I cannot help but see right through them.

The story concludes with the woman giving him a gift in return for the brush--a painting of a bird that she has made--and with our protagonist noting the "inexplicably homeless" sense of the bird on the traditional bamboo. Many months later, he recognizes the image of the bird from an illustrated encyclopedia and leaps to this broad conclusion: "And again I understood a little more about homelessness," which is to say, the idea that we cannot always go home again, and must cull even our once common and familiar images from other, safer-to-travel places. That's a fine sentiment, but Berger hardly needs the rest of the story to make this point, and in fact, the whole is generally so bland that your average reader probably won't even reach that ending.

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