John Berger, who died this past January, began his career as a painter and later became an art critic, essayist, novelist, short story writer, and poet. His writing covers many themes; although all of them are underpinned by strong socio-cultural and political tropes, they are never disconnected from the personal, daily experiences of the characters in them. Into Their Labours, in particular, tells very personal, moving and often comedic stories about European peasants and their eventual migration from the farm to the urban areas.
I first was introduced to John Berger during my first year at college when a group of young theater students and I were asked to devise a piece based on his short story Play Me Something for a class called Contemporary Theater Making (I believe). The rhythms, characters, and setting reminded me of Brecht’s Mother Courage or The Caucasian Chalk Circle and yet were so different. I don’t know whether it was the magic of that first piece of theater we did, or the text itself, but Berger’s writing and the images that sprung from it have stayed with me, especially those from his trilogy, Into Their Labours.