From Chapter One
6:00 A.M.I am mad to try.
I hear these words in my sleep, and when I hear them I coo like a pigeon somewhere at the back of my throat, where the gullet joins the nose. The part which goes dry when you are frightened. I am mad to try to lead you to where we live.
The M.1000 runs north out of the city. There's traffic day and night, nonstop, except when there's an accident, or when strikers put up a barricade. Twelve kilometres from the city centre and four from the sea there is a zone where people never stop unless obliged. Not because it's dangerous but because it has been forgotten. Even those who do stop for a moment forget it immediately afterwards. It's empty, yet it is large. It would take half an hour to run round it, trotting fast. There's talk of building a stadium, the biggest ever, to hold a hundred thousand spectators. In the next century the Olympic Games could be held there. Others argue that since the main airport is to the east of the city it would make more sense to build a stadium in the east. The speculators, Vico says, are placing bets on both sites. Ours is called Saint Valery, and that's where we are going.
The traffic on the M.1000 can be killing. I keep to the hard shoulder. We only have to go as far as the Elf filling station, where it smells of high octane--a little like the smell of diamonds. You have never smelt diamonds?
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 onto him. He woke up in flames.
A heretic's death.
What the hell do you mean? The poor sod didn't know one church from another.
Maybe his heresy was to have no money?
When we get to the gas station we go down the slope, onto the wasteland where one day there may be an Olympic stadium. There are no words for what makes up the wasteland because everything on it is smashed and has been thrown away, and for most fragments there are no proper names.
The winter is over and it's spring. The nights are still cold enough to make a body shiver if it's not well covered, but no longer cold enough to kill. It's good, isn't it, to have lived to see another spring. Everything's coming into leaf. Vica's radishes are coming up well. The plastic sheet Vico spread over them helped, but what made the real difference was the soil we stole. Vica is called Vica because she lives with Vico.
The terrain is used as a dump. Smashed lorries. Old boilers. Broken washing machines. Rotary lawn mowers. Refrigerators which don't make cold any more. Wash basins which are cracked. There are also bushes and small trees and tough flowers like pheasant's-eye and viper's-grass.
This is what I call my mountain. When they destroyed the old building here thirty years ago, they used a swinging weight and cable. It wasn't crushed, it was knocked over. So the scrap mountain is easy to climb.
At the top I systematically bark. Afterwards the other sounds become clearer: some kids shouting towards Ardeatina Street, a sparrow warning other sparrows about a crow, a train on the tracks to the north, faintly a ship's siren, and, behind everything, the howl from the M.1000.
All dogs dream of forests, whether they've ever been in one or not. Even Egyptian dogs dream of forests.
The street I was born in smelt of sawmills. They brought whole trees to the mills, their bark already stripped off their trunks, glistening on ten-wheel lorries.
My first schooling was on the banks of a river where they loaded gravel into barges. A great river and, like any other, a flowing demonstration of pure indifference. I saw it carry away three children in one night.
In the forest I was carefree. I followed trails wherever they led, I ran between pines as tall as churches and jumped the bars of shadow, and when I was panting, I lolloped to the forest edge, where the girls spied and waited for men, and there I lay down on the grass.
When the sun set, the forest was filled with blackness, not with the colour black but the mystery, the invitation of black. Blackness as in a black coat, as in black hair, as in a touching you didn't know existed.
Although Vica is not with me, I hear her voice--this happens often.
King, keep your mouth shut, she hisses, you don't know what you're talking about!
I'm talking about sex.
On the street there's rape, nothing else, she says.
Vica and Vico have an overcoat which hangs over the foot of their bed. At night, if either of them has to go out, they put it on. On her it looks big. On him you think the coat is going out to shit by itself; it hides him entirely. It's lined with sheepskin, and its colour is a dirty white, like snow after they've put salt down.
Vico says coats like this were once standard issue for the Swedish army. It keeps a man warm when the temperature is minus 40. He says he should know because his factory was
approached about manufacturing them.
I'm not sure. When people here talk about the past, they tend to exaggerate, because sometimes the exaggerations too help to keep them a little warmer.
From the scrap mountain I survey the whole of Saint Valery. I know these living quarters as a man knows something he wears. Saint Valery is laid out on the ground like their sheepskin coat. We live in the coat of Saint Valery. In the winter it saves us dying from hypothermia. And in the summer heat it hides us when we undress and wash.
The Vicos live in the cuff of the right sleeve, and an elder tree grows more or less where the sleeve buttons would be. Jack lives up in the collar. Jack is the only inhabitant of Saint Valery who has floorboards and a proper gutter system. He was the first inhabitant, and he never gets wet. Nobody can settle here without his agreement, and he charges everyone a rent for the land. Vica cooks for him once or twice a week and that's our rent. Marcello, who works on Sunday cleaning out tanker lorries, supplies him with a full gas cylinder whenever he needs one. His house has not only floorboards but a wattle roof and a front door which can really be locked. If you wanted to break in there, the easiest way would be to open a window; his windows, unlike ours, open.
Excerpted from King by John Berger. Copyright © 2000 by John Berger. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.