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A book of the dead brimming with life

Here Is Where We Meet
By John Berger
Pantheon, 237 pp., $24

Where an old man and his memories meet -- the ''we" of the title -- is not in a search of the past but in present encounters. Approaching 80, the British novelist, playwright, essayist, and undimmed radical John Berger has brought back the beloved dead as talkative ghosts and set them down in places that hold magic for him.

''They are all gone into the world of light," the poet Henry Vaughn wrote of his departed. Berger brings his back into his own lighted worlds: Lisbon, Krakow, a Polish village, Geneva, the cave paintings along France's Ardeche River.

Sitting in a cafe, exploring a high aqueduct, strolling a city street, inspecting the catch in a fish market, eating a pastry (ghosts need indulgences), he and each of them reflect on what they have known together. A bargain is struck. They provide him an assay that confirms the gold of their common past. He offers them a pledge that he will not stop taking account of them.

''Write down what you find, and do us the courtesy of noticing us," his mother tells him. When he ventures that she is no longer there, she retorts: ''Hence the courtesy, John!"

''Here Is Where We Meet" is a book of the dead that flowers with life. Berger uses all his gifts, recognized more justly in Europe than here, to their varied utmost.

The ghosts who summon him -- among them a teacher, a friend, a lover or two, Jorge Luis Borges, the murdered leftist Rosa Luxemburg -- do it with the fresh voices and expressive postures of theater. His own voice, in the person of John, the narrator, is by turns philosophical, poetic, and stunningly evocative of place and particulars.

Here, from a section titled ''Some Fruit as Remembered by the Dead," he makes a point of connecting the departed with life's vivid sensations (as with the pastry). Melons, for instance, are not good at quenching thirst. ''Even before they are open, melons smell of a sweet enclosed water," he writes. ''Whereas to quench your thirst you need something sharp. Lemons are better."

In Krakow, that nearly unmarred display of Polish Renaissance architecture, it is summer. It is hot ''with the blurred gnat heat of the Eastern European plains and forest. A foliage heat. A heat full of suggestions that does not have the assurance of a Mediterranean heat. Here nothing is certain. The nearest thing to certainty here is a grandmother." John sits in a cafe with Ken, a teacher long dead. They drink borscht, stroll, kibitz at a chess game, examine a cage of pigeons for sale. Ken was the most important figure of his adolescence, introducing him to books, music hall, and all manner of craft and courage.

He taught him slantwise thinking and living; for a while John shared his bed. John thinks of Ken as his passeur, a French word that can denote one who smuggles or guides across risky frontiers. ''The passeur had delivered his charge," John muses; ''the frontiers were crossed."

He confronts the paintings in the Ardeche caves. ''The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries," he writes. ''Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress which has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today's culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them."

In Geneva he reads out the Norse and Old English inscriptions on Borges's grave. Then he takes a daughter (only connect: the dead with the living) on a motorcycle up the mountain. Recalling Zeno's definition of motion as ''neither in the space where it is nor in the space where it isn't," he adds: ''for me this is a definition of music." As the wind rushes past, ''we made a sort of music until we reached the Col de la Faucille."

The most moving encounter is with his mother, dead 15 years. She comes to him in Lisbon (he writes a charming and perceptive evocation of a city of melancholy, grace, and thwarted empire) insisting that the dead are free to choose where to be.

It is Berger, of course, who wants her there, in a place that beguiles, puzzles, and argues with him. As she once did and as she does now, gravely and gaily. Berger and his ghosts are inextricable.

Werner Herzog, the filmmaker, learned as a young man that his idol, film historian Lotte Eisner, was critically ill. He set out to walk the perimeter of Germany ''so that she shall not die" (she survived a few years more). Berger writes so that his dead shall not die, and so that he shall more truly live.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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