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Lilac and Flag: Book Three of the Into Their Labours Trilogy Paperback – October 27, 1992
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A magnificent trilogy. [Into Their Labours] is moving in an almost unbearable way."
-- Anthony Burgess
As Dickens and Balzac did for their time, so, John Berger does for ours, rendering the movement of a people and the passing of a way of life in his masterwork, the Into Their Labours trilogy. With Lilac and Flag, the Alpine village of the two earlier volumes has been forsaken for the mythic city of Troy. Here, amidst the shantytowns, factories, and opulent hotels, fading heritages and steadfast dreams, the children and grandchildren of rural peasants pursue meager livings as best they can. And here, two young lovers embark upon a passionate, desperate journey of love and survival and find transcending hope both for themselves and for us as their witnesses.
"Remarkable.... Like all great novelists, all great people, [John Berger] guides his characters and his readers tenderly and with intimate humor. There is the voice of Isaiah and Jeremiah in this book, but also the compassion of a New Testament."
-- Michael Ondaatje
From the Back Cover
As Dickens and Balzac did for their time, so John Berger does for ours, rendering the movement of a people and the passing of a way of life in his masterwork, the Into Their Labours trilogy.
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“Lilac and Flag” is quite different. Found the first 50 pages challenging, to say the least. A stream of consciousness, a dog’s dinner about lots of persons with strange (nick)names? No paragraph or page made sense. Perseverance provided some clarity soon after, with more coherent pages and paragraphs rooted vaguely and indirectly in JB’s lifelong Marxist orientation: Capitalism as the root cause of everything wrong in the world today, in rural communities as in urban centres.
The universe he creates is Troy, a fantasy seaside megacity with steep hills whose neighbourhoods and other landmarks are named e.g. Las Vegas, Chicago, Alexanderplatz or Budapest station. In Troy, migrants have no chance, perspective or future beyond dangerous jobs without protection. They live in rat-infested shanty towns. Some turn to crime and violence. One character ‘reads’ his world daily, not in print but for any signs of opportunity to turn weakness into profit.
First published in 1990, it could be called a work of magic realism or a vague manifesto overgrown by distractions and obfuscations. It has little flow, the characters are hard to bond with, much of the imagery, poetry, listings incomprehensible or irrelevant. However, as an experimental type of book full of weird detail and lyrical prose—reader-unfriendly to most—John Berger (1926-2017) made few concessions to the mainstream literary conventions he abhorred. Suspect a second reading to be more enlightening and pleasurable, a third even more so, etc.
Finally, I found the way he ended the book brilliant and heart warming. .
This book should convince any doubters about the magnitude of the man's art. When you set
out to write fiction you need to create characters. OK nobody does this better than Berger.
Lilac who is really Zhuza is one of the most wonderful people I have ever met. She is smart and
funny and always knows what to say. Flag is equally wonderful in his own way. these two and
the other people in the book carry on the peasant tradition established in the first two books. They
are having a tough time scratching out a living in the City. Berger's books do not depend upon
traditional plot lines, and there are always moments here and there wher you don't know exactly
what is going on. this may sound uncomfortable, biut somehow Berger always makes ir work.
I have picked up and put down many more books than I can count that promised wonderful prose,
lyrical writing, gem like and so on. But after 3 pages I realize this is diull, pedestrian writing anyone
could do. I mention this because John Berger is the real thing. This guy can write. There are passages
in his books that take your breath away just because the writing is so perfect, so true.
The first 2 installments take place in an Alpine Village that, per the Author, could be easily found many times in the same Alps that he describes. It is even suggested the locale is not unlike the Village that the writer calls his home. In this, the final work, he creates a fictional city, one that he controls, one that will not allow any familiarity to distract from his final act of recording the death of the way of life that starts as nearly idyllic, and ends with a form of redemptive enigma, but only after he has destroyed all that existed in the first two books. The decay and darkness are suffocating, the tale that he ends is infinitely displaced from its origins and is only brought back into contact with its predecessors by his final words, which explain everything, and confirm nothing.
I have never been one for creating lists in an attempt to enumerate the best of what I have had the privilege to read. This trilogy has changed that, for taken as one work it would likely occupy the premier spot, and if taken separately would all reside in the top 5. These writings are the result of 15 years of work and there is no way to categorize it in anything less than superlatives.