Cover image for King : a street story
King : a street story
Berger, John.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
189 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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In this book you will be led to a place you haven't been, from where few stories come. You will be led by King, a dog--or is he a dog?--to a wasteland beside the highway called Saint Valéry. Here, at the end of the twentieth century, among smashed trucks, old boilers, and broken washing machines, live Liberto, Malak, Jack, Corinna, Danny, Anna, Joachim, Saul, Alfonso, and Vico and Vica. Listen to King's voice as he tells a different kind of story: twenty-four hours pass and lives are lived. It is good to have survived another winter, for now it is spring, when the nights, though cold, are no longer harsh enough to kill. The wet season is over, and with it the hopelessness of damp. Today the sun will shine: of what else will the day be made? Kingis at once a furious homage to the homeless and a lyrical meditation on language and experience. The bitter yet celebratory prose speaks to us all.

Author Notes

John Peter Berger was born in London, England on November 5, 1926. After serving in the British Army from 1944 to 1946, he enrolled in the Chelsea School of Art. He began his career as a painter and exhibited work at a number of London galleries in the late 1940s. He then worked as an art critic for The New Statesman for a decade.

He wrote fiction and nonfiction including several volumes of art criticism. His novels include A Painter of Our Time, From A to X, and G., which won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize in 1972. His other works include an essay collection entitled Permanent Red, Into Their Labors, and a book and television series entitled Ways of Seeing.

In the 1970s, he collaborated with the director Alain Tanner on three films. He wrote or co-wrote La Salamandre, The Middle of the World, and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. He died on January 1, 2017 at the age of 90.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe, those classics narrated by animals, both protest cruelty to animals. Berger's animal-told tale protests cruelty to humans. King is a dog whose master and mistress, Vico and Vica, are old people living north of a city near the ocean on a stretch of bare land called Saint Valery, where they and other homeless persons have pitched makeshift shelters. King talks with all Saint Valery's inhabitants, some of whom seem mildly mad, but all of whom people with homes see as, essentially, stray dogs, which may be why King can talk with them. This talking is never explained, because the novel's concern is to chronicle one day in the life of its hopelessly poor characters--a day, moreover, that ends with their forced eviction from Saint Valery by police with bulldozers. A brilliant, experimental fiction writer, Berger, whose masterpiece is Pig Earth (1980), immerses readers so artfully, beautifully, and humanely in the experience of homelessness that the absurdity of a talking dog is forgotten. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

It's difficult to tell a serious story in the voice of a dog, but that's what art critic (About Looking; Ways of Seeing) and novelist (G.) Berger has accomplished. The canine King introduces readers to a variety of intriguing humans in the squatter's community of Saint Val‚ry, France, among them his ownersÄthe well-educated but decadent Vico and the uncontrolled and passionate VicaÄand Jack, the unofficial landlord of the settlement. The narrative rambles and ambles like its characters, blending speakers' reminiscences with present action; frequently, the squatters explain their pasts and describe how they became homeless. Berger creates a memorable setting for his cast, including an abandoned building jokingly dubbed Pizza Hut and a canyon called the Boeing because remnants of an aircraft have settled there. Though King narrates, much of the novel consists of human dialogue, with King functioning as a passive observer; his infrequent contributions, then, sensual and wise, are all the more notable and surprising. Berger's deceptively spare, disjointed style represents depths upon depths of perception and wisdom; in the bare landscape he has created, each word acquires symbolic resonance. So does each person: the political undercurrent in this tale of scrappy homeless people pushed out of the way by financial expediency will be lost on few readers. In bringing us so believably inside the head of an animal to elucidate the vagaries of human nature, Berger has not only accomplished an impressive technical feat, but has performed a humane act. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



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: A Street Story by John Berger All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.