In this book you will be led to a place you haven't been, from where few stories come. You will be led by King, a dog--or is he a dog?--to a wasteland beside the highway called Saint Valéry. Here, at the end of the twentieth century, among smashed trucks, old boilers, and broken washing machines, live Liberto, Malak, Jack, Corinna, Danny, Anna, Joachim, Saul, Alfonso, and Vico and Vica. Listen to King's voice as he tells a different kind of story: twenty-four hours pass and lives are lived. It is good to have survived another winter, for now it is spring, when the nights, though cold, are no longer harsh enough to kill. The wet season is over, and with it the hopelessness of damp. Today the sun will shine: of what else will the day be made? King is at once a furious homage to the homeless and a lyrical meditation on language and experience. The bitter yet celebratory prose speaks to us all.
John Berger has a beautiful, sparse prose style, and the matter-of-fact way he discloses unexpected details can be devastating. For example, on the second page we are jolted by this:
"A month ago a gang of kids poured petrol over an old man
who was sleeping in a street behind the Central Station
and then they threw a match on to him. He woke up in flames."
This is an unforgettable book. It will surprise you, move you, and prick your conscience. I'm ashamed to admit that one reason it caught me by surprise is that Vica and Vico aren't a pair of young drug addicts, they are an elderly couple, married for thirty years, who used to have a 'normal' life (whatever that means) but have ended up on this human scrapheap following redundancy. To society's shame, they have become redundant. This is a day in the life of people literally living on a scrapheap, struggling to survive. As details of their lives are revealed, and their devotion to each other shines through, it breaks your heart. Even to be allowed to stay on the scrapheap they have to pay: in order to raise the money, Vico sells his last possession, a camera:
"Do you want to know the photos I've taken with the camera you are holding in your hands?" asks Vico. "We are not interested" says the shopkeeper.
Is he including us, the readers, in that "we"?
Are we interested in the life story of a tramp? Do we care?
This book that made me realize why so many homeless people seem to have dogs. it's because stray dogs recognize them as fellow outcasts. And because dogs don't discriminate - they see the human beings we choose not to, and befriend them.
"King" may be hard to find, it didn't get the promotion it deserved, and it is frequently misfiled in shops and libraries because Berger didn't want his name to appear on the cover. In fact the only place he is named is in the copyright details. It's almost as if he wants King to be credited as the author - but then again maybe King isn't really a dog...
It may not be the greatest novel of all time, but it is full of simple humanity and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I re-read very few books, but this one I keep coming back to - it's so haunting.