English PEN is saddened by the death of the novelist and poet John Berger, who died aged 90 on 2 January 2017. Berger was a member of English PEN and received the 2009 Golden PEN, awarded by the trustees of English PEN to mark a lifetime of literary achievement.
Accepting the award at an event in December 2009, Berger affirmed the importance of freedom of expression:
Free speech is already a word so abused, and so lightly used normally, that maybe we should think about what it really means. Because nearly always the defence of free speech is the defence of those who are protesting against some kind of injustice. And it is the powers who create that injustice who try to limit what can be said. So free speech is something much more resistant than one might think.
Delivering an econmium before presenting the Golden PEN award, the novelist and critic Geoff Dyer praised Berger’s writing as ‘devoid of cynicism, never nostalgic and endlessly furious’ and his ongoing literary innovation. Dyer emphasised the ‘incredible variety’ of Berger’s output, from the experimental style of G to the ‘unclassifiable’ And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos.
Dyer also paid tribute to Berger’s literary activism:
The translations alert us to another more general underlying continuity: John’s unflinching political commitment over all this time. An incredible willingness to lend his talent, to use his writing, and to use his influence in the service of – to put it in the most general terms possible – of alleviating the suffering of the world … it seems to me that as time has gone by, we have become aware of John as somebody who is trying to repair the world where it seems most broken.
John Berger generously participated in English PEN’s ‘First Editions, Second Thoughts‘ charity auction in 2013, contributing annotations to a first edition copy of his Booker Prize-winning novel G.
The recording of the Golden PEN 2009 ceremony is available below, and includes Berger reading from his translation (with Rema Hammami) of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry.