“a cautionary tale… royalties go to the Harlem United Community AIDS Center…”
For Freedom to Read Week (February 24-March 2) (http://www.freedomtoread.ca/), I’d like to highlight a somewhat recently challenged book as opposed to a ‘repeat offender’ like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. May I recommend To the Wedding (Pantheon Books, 1995) by novelist and art critic John Berger (of Ways of Seeing renown)? In fall 2011, some parents of high school juniors in Murrieta Valley, California objected to the book being assigned reading based on its mature content. If you research the controversy online, you’ll read about the use of the f-word to describe sexual relations. What is not mentioned, curiously, is the erection a husband has for his new wife while watching her at their wedding, or two loving sex scenes worthy of rereading for their passion. I have to wonder if the unstated real concern is the arguably mature content of SIDA (the main character became HIV positive after sex on the beach with an escaped convict).
As a librarian, I am compelled to protect the freedom to read. In this particular case, this impulse is intensified by the usefulness of such a cautionary tale (prophylactics were not mentioned in the beach scene) and by the fact that the book’s royalties go to the Harlem United Community AIDS Center (http://www.harlemunited.org/).
The book opens with an old man named Tsobanakos selling metallic accessories for prayer at a Greek market. A father selects a tin one for his daughter, eschewing the gold one because her medical condition is hopeless. Tsobanakos encounters Jean, the father, one more time and overhears him talking excitedly about his daughter Ninon’s wedding plans. He then imagines how their story plays out, and how it came to be.
To the Wedding can be disorienting, between moving backward and forward in time and juggling different points of view (Ninon’s, her fiancée Gino’s, and those of her parents and Gino’s father, Federico). Maybe it’s a fitting structure for conveying the lack of control that exists with incurable disease.
Berger doesn’t dwell on Ninon’s depressed reaction to her diagnosis. With rich images like love letter fragments floating in a toilet bowl and writing like, “All, all, all, all, all I had has been taken” (p. 79), embellishment is unnecessary.
The book focusses on random moments devoid of meaning and those infused with meaning as characters travel to Venice for the wedding. The locale of the local colour moves along with Jean’s motorbike from Modena, Italy and along with the bus and boat ride from Bratislava, Czech Republic taken by Zdena, Ninon’s mother.
The wedding is imagined as a future event, where the couple’s joy is interspersed with glimpses into an even farther future where Ninon is “slowly abandoned by life” (p. 89).
As much as Ninon is terribly unlucky, she is also very lucky. Her parents want desperately to comfort her. Her mother buys a whistle for Ninon to mimic the birds outside Zdena’s home, and her father almost steals an ancient necklace from a museum because he is drawn to its protective qualities. When he picks out perfume for her, the store clerk notes that her own father doesn’t love her like Jean loves Ninon. Then there’s Gino, who couldn’t be sweeter. Even though she doesn’t want to date him anymore, he convinces her to get in a boat and then steers her around a rough current to prove to her that they can face anything. She in turn, learns the very essence of emotionally focussed therapy that eludes so many of us: one chapter begins and ends with the three words that are arguably more important than ‘I love you’: “Hold me tight,.”