An Open Letter to Subcommandante Marcos in the Mountains of Southeast Mexico

<i> John Berger is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including "Ways of Seeing," "Into Their Labours" and "G.," for which he won the Booker Prize in 1972</i>

You described seven pieces of a puzzle that can never fit together. Each piece is as heavy with reality as granite. The puzzle is the product of the new world order imposed by neoliberalism. The fourth world war, you say, has already begun, and the contestants fighting for their market territories are causing devastation everywhere. The end of our century has become another Dark Age. Indeed.

Six pieces of the puzzle, which you found, explain the darkness. The last, the seventh, refers to the pockets of resistance that have formed or are forming: the Zapatistas in the Chiapas, Southeast Mexico, and others across the globe, not necessarily armed, each struggle adapted to its own geographic or social terrain.

I want to say something about these pockets. My observations may seem remote, but, as you say, “A world can contain many worlds, can contain all worlds.”


The least dogmatic of our century’s thinkers about revolution was Antonio Gramsci, no? His lack of dogmatism came from a kind of patience. This patience had absolutely nothing to do with indolence or complacency. (The fact that his major work was written in the prison in which the Italian Fascists kept him for eight years, until he was dying at the age of 46, testifies to its urgency.)

His special patience came from a sense of a practice that will never end. He saw close-up, and sometimes directed the political struggles of his time, but he never forgot the background of an unfolding drama whose span covers incalculable ages. It was perhaps this which prevented Gramsci from becoming, like many other revolutionaries, a millennialist. He believed in hope rather than promises, and hope is a long affair. We can hear it in his words:

“If we think about it, we see that in asking the question, what is man?, we want to ask: What can man become? Which means: Can he master his own destiny, can he make himself, can he give form to his own life? Let us say then that man is a process, and precisely, the process of his own acts.”

Gramsci went to school, from the age of 6 until 12, in the small town of Ghilarza in central Sardinia. He was born in Ales, a village nearby. When he was 4, he fell to the floor as he was being carried, and this accident led to a spinal malformation that permanently undermined his health. He did not leave Sardinia until he was 20. I believe the island gave him or inspired in him his special sense of time.

In the hinterland around Ghilarza, as in many parts of the island, the thing you feel most strongly is the presence of the stones. First and foremost, it is a place of stones, and--in the sky above--of gray hooded crows. Every tanca--pasture--and every cork-oak plantation has at least one, often several, piles of stones, and each pile is the size of a large freight truck. These stones have been gathered and stacked together recently so that the soil, dry and poor as it is, can nevertheless be worked. The stones are large, the smallest would weigh half a ton. There are granites (red and black), schist, limestone, sandstone and several darkish volcanic rocks like basalt. In certain tancas, the gathered boulders are long rather than round, so they have been piled together like poles and the pile has a triangular shape like that of an immense, stone, wigwam.

Endless and ageless dry-stone walls separate the tancas, border the gravel roads, enclose pens for the sheep or, having fallen apart after centuries of use, suggest ruined labyrinths. There are also little pyramid piles of smaller stones no larger than fists. Toward the west rise very ancient limestone mountains.


Everywhere a stone is touching a stone. And here, over this pitiless ground, one approaches something delicate: There is a way of placing one stone on another that irrefutably announces a human act, as distinct from a natural hazard.

And this may make one remember that to mark a place with a cairn constituted a kind of naming and was probably among the first signs used by man.

“Knowledge is power,” wrote Gramsci, “but the question is complicated by something else: namely that it is not enough to know a set of relations existing at a given moment as if they were a given system, one also needs to know them genetically--that’s to say the story of their formation, because every individual is not only a synthesis of existing relations, but also the history of those relations, which means the resume of all the past.”

On account of its strategic position in the western Mediterranean and on account of its mineral deposits--lead, zinc, tin, silver--Sardinia has been invaded and its coast line occupied during four millenniums. The first invaders were the Phoenicians, followed by the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Pisans, the Spanish, the House of Savoy and finally modern mainland Italy.

As a result, Sardinians mistrust and dislike the sea. “Whoever comes across the sea,” they say, “is a thief.” They are not a nation of sailors or fishermen but of shepherds. They have always sought shelter in the stony inaccessible interior of their land to become what the invaders called (and call) “brigands.” The island is not large (roughly 150 miles long and 60 wide), yet the iridescent mountains, the southern light, the lizard-dryness, the ravines, the corrugated stony terrain, lend it, when surveyed from a vantage point, the aspect of a continent. And on this continent today, with their 3.5 million sheep and their goats, live 35,000 shepherds: 100,000 if one includes the families who work with them.

It is a megalithic country--not in the sense of being prehistoric--like every poor land in the world it has its own history ignored or dismissed as “savage” by the metropols--but in the sense that its soul is rock and its mother stone.

Sebastiano Satta (1867-1914), the national poet (as yet untranslated into English), wrote:

When the rising sun, Sardinia, warms your granite

You must give birth to new sons.

This has gone on, with many changes but a certain continuity, for six millenniums. The shepherd’s pipe of classical mythology is still being played. Scattered over the island, there remain 7,000 nuraghi--dry-stone towers, dating from the late Neolithic period before the Phoenician invasion. Many are more or less ruins; others are intact and may be 36 feet in height, 24 feet in diameter, with walls 9 feet thick.

It takes time for your eyes to get used to the dark inside one. The single entrance, with a hewn architrave, is narrow and low; you have to crouch to get in. When you can see in the cool dark inside, you observe how, to achieve a vaulted interior without mortar, the layers of massive stones had to be laid one on top of the other with an overlap inward, so that the space is conical like that of a straw beehive. The cone, however, cannot be too pointed, for the walls need to bear the weight of the enormous flat stones that close the roof. Some nuraghi consist of two floors with a staircase. Unlike the pyramids, a thousand years earlier, these buildings were for the living. There are various theories about their exact function. What is clear is that they offered shelter, probably many layers of shelter, for men are many-layered.

The nuraghi are invariably placed at a nodal point in the rocky landscape, at a point where the land itself might, as it were, have an eye: a point from which everything can be silently observed in every direction--until, faraway, the surveillance is handed on to the next nuraghe. This suggests that they had, among other things, a military, defensive function. They have also been called “sun temples,” “towers of silence” and, by the Greeks, daidaleia after Daedelus, the builder of the labyrinth.

Inside, you slowly become aware of the silence. Outside, there are blackberries, very small and sweet ones, cactuses whose fruit with stony pips the shepherds take the thorns out of and eat, hedges of bramble, barbed-wired, asphodels like swords whose hilts have been planted in the thin soil . . . perhaps a flock of chattering linnets. Inside the hive of stones (constructed before the Trojan Wars): silence. A concentrated silence--like tomato puree concentrated in a tin.

By contrast, all extensive diffused silence has to be continually monitored in case there is a sound that warns of danger. In this concentrated silence, the senses have the impression that the silence is a protection. Thus you become aware of the companionship of stone.

The epithets “inorganic,” “inert,” “lifeless,” “blind”--as applied to stone--may be short-term. Above the town of Galtelli towers the pale limestone mountain that is called Monte Tuttavista--the mountain that sees all.

Perhaps the proverbial nature of stone changed when prehistory became history. Building became rectangular. Mortar permitted the construction of pure arches. A seemingly permanent order was established, and with this order came talk of happiness. The art of architecture quotes this talk in many different ways, yet for most people, the promised happiness did not arrive, and the proverbial reproaches began: Stone was contrasted with bread because it was not edible, stone was called heartless because it was deaf.

Before, when any order was always shifting and the only promise was that contained in a place of shelter, in the time of the nuraghi, stones were considered companions.

Stones propose another sense of time, whereby the past, the deep past of the planet, proffers a meager yet massive support to human acts of resistance, as if the veins of metal in rock led to our veins of blood.

To place a stone upright so that it stands vertical is an act of symbolic recognition: The stone becomes a presence, a dialogue begins. Near the town of Macomer, there are six such standing stones summarily carved into ogival forms; three of them, at shoulder level, have carved breasts that look as though they were made like swallow’s nests. The sculpting is minimal. Not necessarily through lack of means; perhaps through choice. An upright stone then did not depict a companion: it was one. The six bethels are of trachtic rock that is porous. As a result, even under a strong sun, they reach body heat and no more.

When the rising sun, Sardinia, warms your granite

You must give birth to new sons.

Earlier than the nuraghi are the domus de janas, which are rooms hollowed out of rock pediments, and made, it is said, to house the dead.

This one is made of granite. You have to crawl in, and inside you can sit but not stand. The chamber measures 9 feet by 6. Stuck to its stone are two deserted wasp nests. The silence is less concentrated than in the nuraghi, and there is more light, for you are less deeply inside; the pocket is nearer to the outside of the coat.

Here the age of the man-made place is palpable. Not because you calculate--mid-Neolithic--Calcolithic--but because of the relation between the rock you are in and human touch.

The granite surface has been made deliberately smooth. Nothing rough or jagged has been left. The tools used were probably of obsidian. The space is corporeal in that it seems to pulse like an organ in a body. (A little like a kangaroo’s pocket!) And this effect is increased by the remaining soft smears of yellow and reddish ochre where originally the surfaces were painted. The irregularities of the chamber’s shape must have been determined by variations in the rock formation. But more interesting than where they came from is where they are heading.

You lie in this hiding place, Marcos--there is a faint sweetish almost vanilla smell coming from some herb outside--and you can see in the irregularities the first probings toward the form of a column, the outline of a pilaster or the curves of a cupola--toward the idea of happiness.

By the foot of the chamber--and there’s no question which way the bodies, either alive or dead, were intended to lie--the rock is curved and concave, and on this surface, a human hand has chipped distinct radiating ribs as on a scallop shell.

By the entrance, which is no higher than a small dog, there was a protrusion like a fold in the rock’s natural curtain, and here a human hand tapered and rounded it so that it approached--but did not yet reach--the column.

All domus de janas face east. Through the entrances from the inside, you can see the sun rise.

In a letter from prison in 1931, Gramsci told a story for his two children, the younger of whom, because of his imprisonment, he had never seen. A small boy is asleep with a glass of milk beside his bed on the floor. A mouse drinks the milk, the boy wakes up and finding the glass empty, cries. So the mouse goes to the goat to ask for some milk. The goat has no milk, he needs grass. The mouse goes to the field, and the field has no grass because it’s too parched. The mouse goes to the well, and the well has no water because it needs repairing. So the mouse goes to the mason who hasn’t exactly the right stones. Then the mouse goes to the mountain, and the mountain wants to hear nothing and looks like a skeleton because it has lost its trees. (During the last century Sardinia was drastically deforested to supply railway sleepers for the Italian mainland.) In exchange for your stones, the mouse says to the mountain, the boy, when he grows up, will plant chestnuts and pines on your slopes. Whereupon the mountain agrees to give the stones. Later the boy has so much milk, he washes in it! Later still, when he becomes a man, he plants the trees, the erosion stops and the land becomes fertile.

P.S. In the town of Ghilarza there is a small Gramsci Museum, near the school he attended. Photos. Copies of books. A few letters. And, in a glass case, two stones carved into round weights about the size of grapefruits. Every day Antonio, as a boy, did lifting exercises with these stones to strengthen his shoulders and correct the malformation of his back.