And if it was only you left alive, would you forget what it meant, to be a human?
Someone (I can’t remember who you were, but possibly a reviewer who may have mentioned this in passing) sent me to search out and get The Wall, a 1968 book by the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, which has been reprinted, thanks no doubt to the 2013 German film Die Wand, which, by all accounts is as sensitive, thought provoking and disturbing as Haushofer’s original book. Unknown reviewer, whoever you were, thank you.
There seem to be several translations into English, the initial one around the time of first publication was by Amanda Prantera, an interesting novelist herself, and the current UK one I have, which i was not aware of as ‘a translation’ (a good sign, i think, is by Shaun Whiteside. There is a different translator of the USA released version, which has a different dust jacket. I think the book, and its strangeness is not well served by the dustjackets from either side of the pond, though the UK one feels particularly crass, showing a young girl/woman against glass streaked with rain, looking winsome and in mourning for the prince who went away. Winsome this book is absolutely not, and the central character has long grown up daughters, probably rather older than the woman on this dustjacket! So, please DON’T judge a book by etc. (I show the American cover here as a little less inappropriate)
I may or may not gravitate to the film, but oh, the book
It is difficult to know where to start with this unsettling, reflective, heart-breaking, philosophical book, which quietly unpicks just what is it, at the end, to be a human animal.
A simple premise, in many ways – and one which may be familiar to Stephen King’s readers, as apparently the basic premise formed the substance of his 2009 book Under The Dome.
A cataclysmic event seals off survivors from the rest of the world, trapping them in a kind of prison. That, I understand is King’s book which devotes a lot of time to the wheres and whyfores of The Dome, and of course the survivors.
Haushofer’s is completely different. Having almost immediately established The Wall, she (and she is the only survivor) accepts it as a given, and is not much interested in the why and how did it happen. It is quickly, and very practically, accepted for what it is. Something created by technology, by warfare between nations, by a weapon and experiment which clearly was more aggressive and destructive than its inventors ever imagined.
The unnamed narrator is a middle aged woman, a widow, going away for a few days with a cousin and her husband to their hunting lodge deep in the Austrian Alps. The couple go to the nearest village for an evening drink, but never return. In the morning, the narrator finds the mysterious transparent wall has appeared, and every living thing on the other side of the wall, which appears to extend to the limits of vision, has been petrified.
So begins the book, a journal kept, looking back from a two year vantage point, by the never named narrator. Do you need a name if you are the only survivor, and there will never be anyone to need to name you, to distinguish you from anyone else, ever again?
The journal, which she writes in certainty that it will never be read, never be found, is written because – well – isn’t this what we do – we find some way to note and record and mark our being, some way of saying ‘I was here’ some way of marking time, space, and our own needs as reflective creatures who exist in time and know a past, inhabit a present and imagine a future.
The isolated, Alpine setting also provides our narrator with the means of survival – there are forests, deer (it’s a hunting lodge, remember, where people come in hunting season, with stocks to take them through) She has a dog, borrowed for the weekend visit, and luckily, a cow which also had strayed to this side of the wall, before ‘the event’ Later, a half feral cat appears from the forest.
It’s like another kind of Ark, except hardly two by two. Bereft of human companionship, relationships develop between the animals and the narrator. But please don’t think twee, these are fierce relationships about survival, connection, the animal need for comfort which not only humans feel.
I discovered that at one point, the book had sometimes been praised and marketed as an ‘eco-feminist utopian book’ Really???!! Sure, the book is about the preciousness of other living creatures, about the need for respect for the landscape, it’s a FOR the cherishing of life and AGAINST the destruction and war which leads to/led to ‘the event’. And the one who survives is a female, and she has to fend for herself, learn how to survive, remember the skills she once learned as a young woman with a rural background and somehow find, with difficulty, new skills. But, apart from the fact she IS female, so yes there is a lot of thought given to the nature of animal companions which comes from their femaleness (the cow) or their maleness (the dog) it is more about being human itself, than female or male.
Most peculiarly – Utopia? Really? To know that all you loved have died, and that all you now love and care for (the animals) may or will or do die before you, and that if YOU are the one to die before them, you will leave them alone, and maybe, suffering – as you will suffer if they go before you. Some utopia!
The structure of the book is very skilful – because the narrator is writing this looking back over her time she always knows where she will end up. So, we are told, over and over, all through the book, about pains and losses which will come, so we are always reading the immediacy and at times the sweetness of a moment, and the awfulness which awaits.
This is unlikely to appeal if you are someone who likes the drive of the book to be in one ‘what happens next’ direction. To be honest ‘the action’ in narrative terms, is little, the action is generally very practically rooted – how do you harvest and ration the matches, the dried beans, the potatoes, the shoes, the bullets for your hunting rifle that will keep you alive, before, in time, death must come from accident or want. And what, all humankind gone, might it be that keeps you here. Why bother?
All I can say is that I found this a most unusual, most thoughtful, most despairing-and-most-appreciative-of-the-little NOW sort of book. In the end, it is a book about Stoicism, and about acceptance, at a deep level. Its also, given the deep and vital surrender to the business of staying alive by being within the moment of your living, alert to that quality of yourself within the external world, a book which has some parallels with instructions about ‘living mindfully’
This is quite unlike anything else. On many levels, a short (just over 200 pages) read, an easy read, but I lingered and lingered, not wanting to get to where the narrator had told me we were going, time and again, in this journey.
An extraordinary book.
Then I would sit down on the bench and wait. The meadow slowly went to sleep, the stars came out, and later the moon rose high and bathed the meadow in its cold light. I waited for those hours all day, filled with secret impatience. They were the only hours in which I was capable of thinking quite without illusions, completely clearly. I was no longer in search of a meaning to make my life more bearable. That kind of desire struck me as being almost presumptuous. Human beings had played their own games, and in almost every case they had ended badly. And how could I complain? I was one of them and couldn’t judge them, because I understood them so well. It was better not to think about human beings. The great game of the sun, moon and stars seemed to be working out, and that hadn’t been invented by humans. But it wasn’t completed yet, and might bear the seeds of failure within it.
This is of course a fiction, literary fiction book, but because of the depth of its considering, I have also categorised it in one of my non-fiction sections – ethics, reflection – it is a deeply philosophical book, and possibly made me consider and debate as much as any formal non-fiction book about ‘what it means to be human’