John Berger‘s story, “A Brush” is about an encounter the narrator has with a Cambodian couple while swimming at a municipal pool in Paris. The story has a faltering beginning and drowns under the weight of the voice and overly stylized writing. It begins:
I want to tell you the story of how I gave away this Sho Japanese Brush. Where it happened and how.
There are lines like “It was made of the hairs of horse and sheep,” that would flow better written as, “It was made of horse and sheep hair.” What is Berger trying to gain through this style? Is he trying to invoke a more meditative mood? Instances of these poorly constructed sentences overflow. For example, “The entrance doors are of glass with the instruction POUSSEZ stenciled on them.” Rewritten as, “Stenciled on the glass entrance doors were the words POUSSEZ,” the sentence is simple, and efficient. It could also be rewritten as, “The words POUSSEZ were stenciled on the glass door.” Do we need entrance? Unnecessary details and clunky sentences cause this story to flail and gasp.
The story has a wandering nature to it, that at times, reads like non-fiction. The loss of focus may turn some readers off, but didn’t prove too distracting for me.
What saves this story at the end is the emotion. The narrator gives the Cambodian woman his brush, and even though it’s not surprising when she gives him a drawing months later, it still pulls at the emotions of the reader. The moment is touching. The narrator is moved. A surprising gesture changes someone’s life. The story works despite itself.