The Books Interview: John Berger

Were you surprised by being awarded the 2009 Golden PEN?
No. The England I decided to leave more than 50 years ago was very different from the England of now that gives me this prize. Above all, there is the multi-ethnicity, the exchanges, the interchanges, on such multiple levels. It is quite extraordinarily different from the narrow England I wanted to get out of. I didn't feel very at home in England. I knew I wanted to live in Europe. Most of the artists and thinkers who inspired me were in Europe. And, perhaps at an unconscious level, which I only see in retrospect, there was an atavism: my father's father came from Trieste. Leaving took time to organise, and it was 15 years after I left that I settled in the Alps, where I now live.

Why did you decide to be a writer, not a painter?
It was a very conscious decision to stop painting - not stopping drawing - and write. A painter is like a violinist: you have to play every single day, you can't do it sporadically. For me, there were too many political urgencies to spend my life painting. Most urgent was the threat of nuclear war - the risk of course came from Washington, not Moscow. And now, living in a village is very social, much more than the city. And the practical tasks - shovelling snow, the political tasks which come on email - I do these first before I sit down to write.

It is striking how many of your books have been done as collaborations - most recently a translation with Rema Hammami, of Mahmoud Darwish's epic poem "Mural".
Yes, I really welcome collaboration. I've also done collaborations with my son Yves, my daughter, Katya, and in the years of television film in the 1960s, with Mike Dibb. The important thing about collaboration is not to make compromises. All differences of opinion have to be faced, reflected on. It's like the opposite of committees, where people are swamped by compromises. Mike Dibb remains a close friend. In the 1960s, working for television was a way of earning money - books didn't pay, I had to survive. So I did interviews, reportage. I was at ease with TV. We had this idea of making a four-programme series about the relationship between art and image. It was very low-budget, not important to anyone, so no one was on our backs. We spent six or eight months working on it. The BBC didn't believe in it and showed it very late at night. The book came as a hurried add-on.

What was it like working with Rema Hammami?
Rema and I travelled together in Palestine, and worked on this translation together, and by email, for years. We argued incessantly. Translation is such a subtle process: you have to penetrate the language, get behind it. You have to find the rhythm, the silences. Rema was the brave one who took our work to Darwish to ask what he thought. He approved. What we had was a voice - Darwish's in English, which has its own rhythm, cadence, forms of silence.

When did Palestine become central to your writing?
I've only been actively concerned with Palestine as a writer for about seven years. But the crisis, the injustice, the suffering of the Palestinians, have coexisted alongside my whole life as a writer. The length of this injustice, the lack of recognition of it by the rest of the world, while Israel pursues its own logic, totally regardless of the views of the external world - all this I was not conscious of then, but I am now. I look back on the young man I was in Paris in 1948, with Jewish friends who were thinking of going to Israel. They all wore strident blue shirts, and they gave me one, and I wore it with pride. We had an idea of what a kibbutz was to be - an ideal of a co-operative, with a healthy link to the land, a collectivity, a questioning of individuality, all of which appealed to me.

Your books and plays range across a wide spectrum of preoccupations - from the nature of seeing to the desperate lives of migrants in Europe. Do you have a favourite?
Well, if there was somebody who knew nothing about me, and I wanted them to know me a little, I would send them A Seventh Man (1975). Or, maybe I would send them a little pamphlet called Meanwhile, published in 2008.Prison, it keeps coming up, doesn't it? I wrote in that essay, "Across the planet we are living in a prison."

Interview by Victoria Brittain
John Berger's most recent book is "From A to X: a Story in Letters" (Verso, £7.99)


Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power