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the Complete Review
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John Berger

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To purchase King

Title: King
Author: John Berger
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 192 pages
Availability: King
King - UK
King - Canada
King - France
King - Deutschland
King - España
  • A Street Story

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Our Assessment:

C+ : decent, in all senses of the word, but not entirely sympathetic.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph B+ 27/2/1999 David Robson
The Independent . 20/3/1999 Michael Arditti
The Independent . 29/4/2000 Emma Hagestadt
The LA Times . 20/5/1999 Susie Linfield
The Times C 20/2/1999 Scott Bradfield
TLS . 12/2/1999 Ian Critchely

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, little opinion -- the reviews tend to be descriptive rather than critical.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)his new work bristles with invention. It has its moments of preciousness (...) but the core of the narrative is sound." - David Robson, Daily Telegraph

  • "As in Berger's other novels, this kind of Beckett-like dialogue can verge on the toe-curling though the author's Euro-readership probably go for these passages big time. (...) Not a book to read when feeling low." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "Berger's novel -- written entirely in staccato, almost epigrammatic paragraphs -- is an indictment of poverty, of the new global order, of the "barbarism of today" that "grabs everything across the world whilst it ... talks of freedom."" - Susie Linfield, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Berger is not Beckett (or Ballard either, for that matter) and this fable about people being responsible for their own illusions never quite comes off." - Scott Bradfield, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It is narrated by a dog. This novel, King, is narrated by a dog. King. Much as we want to allow authors all freedoms we are always wary of books narrated by animals -- with good reason, as this novel once again proves. It has been done successfully only on very rare occasions.
       John Berger has always shown an admirable social conscience, and much of his fiction serves as a medium for this specific message of his. On occasion he has been successful. On occasion he fails. The ponderous and sincere King, though admirable in some ways, does ultimately fall short.
       The story of a group of people that are basically homeless, over a hundred who homestead in a dump off a motorway, in Saint Valéry, King is meant to be a thought-provoking portrait of the dispossessed and in many respects dehumanized. Ergo King the canine. Vica and Vico, King's human companions, were once successful, part of the mainstream, but now survive in this odd and very peripheral homeless culture, along with the many others who have been broken by mainstream life or who escaped it. Berger is not entirely successful in avoiding making them all seem like "characters", though given his approach he manages fairly well (it is hard to pull off a homeless character named Vico, with all the baggage that Berger heaps on him, but Berger nearly manages this neat trick).
       Berger paints several nice portraits of the individuals and the complexity of their lives. He avoids too much straightforward sentimentality, but the stories are certainly moving. He tries to show the reader what such dispossessed lives must be like, though he is never entirely convincing
       The actions comes to a head when the dispossessed are threatened with being completely dispossessed, their world literally to be wiped from the face of the earth, when the mean and ruthless developer men come to bulldoze the site (to build a sport stadium). The confrontation is dramatic enough and yet here as in much of the book it simply seems too contrived. Needless to say, the fact that the story is told from the dog's point of view does not help here in the least.
       Berger does have considerable literary talent. The entire novel is told in short sections, some only a line in length, and some of these phrases, descriptions, and episodes are haunting and powerful. Others are ponderous, tendentious, awkward. The book is a fairly quick read, and there is enough to appreciate, but it ultimately is too simplistic and though well-intentioned leaves a sour aftertaste. One wants to like a book dealing with such serious issues better, but in this case we found we could not.
       Very lukewarmly recommended.

       Note that on the English edition Berger would not permit his name to be put on the cover -- an act we wholeheartedly approve of: emphasis should be on the work (even when it is fairly second-rate, as in this case) and not the author. Naturally in the U.S., with its cult of the personality, this does not fly and "John Berger" is emblazoned on the cover.

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King: Reviews: Books about John Berger under review: John Berger:
  • Interview in the San Francisco Chronicle
  • "Virtual Interview" with John Berger, originally in Prospect, by beta_Nzos (Alan F.Sundberg).
Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Booker Prize winning British author John Berger was born in 1926 and died in 2017. He currently lives in France. Author of numerous novels, he also wrote the seminal Ways of Seeing as well as Art and Revolution and The Success and Failure of Picasso. He also co-wrote the screenplay to Alain Tanner's classic Jonah who will be 25 in the Year 2000.

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