Die Wand (The Wall) (1963)
Marlen Haushofer (1920-1970)
Even a casual glance through the fiction books I’ve reviewed since starting this blog reveals my penchant for post-apocalyptic novels. My interest, though, rests not with the precipitating, catastrophic event itself, but rather with the characters’ reactions to the new situation they find themselves in. How do they pick up and go on?
Precisely that dilemma presents itself to the narrator in Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s novel, The Wall (Die Wand, in the original German). Haushofer constructs the story as a report written by a woman trying to make sense of her life spent in a shockingly constricted world: Two and a half years earlier, having traveled up into the Austrian mountains for a few days of holiday with a couple who own a small hunting lodge, she had settled in for the evening while the couple walked back down to the little village below the lodge to pass some time at the local inn; the next morning, surprised the couple had not yet returned, the woman walked down toward the village to try and discover what had happened to her friends, only to encounter a wall, “a smooth, cool, resistance on a spot at which there really couldn’t be anything but air.” (14) With just that little amount of warning or fanfare, the woman finds her life unimaginably changed.
Returning to the hunting lodge, the woman holds at bay the crushing fears threatening to overwhelm her by turning her focus to her immediate survival. Initially she takes stock of what is available in the lodge, but, in the weeks that follow, as hope of rescue dims, she is forced into a broader evaluation of her options in the mountain highland she finds herself trapped in. Occasionally the woman’s thoughts do return to the wall, and speculation on its origin, but given her lack of any means to investigate it, the never-ending work to stay alive, and her barely contained fears of potentially permanent isolation, she forcibly cuts such digressions short.
Thus the story dwells hardly at all on the cause of the apocalypse, or its broader implications — in fact, we readers are seemingly freer to speculate about that than the woman herself, as she mentally protects herself from hopelessness and depression. Deliberately avoiding any specifics of the apocalyptic event itself, Haushofer has instead created a captivating drama out of the woman’s physical and physiological fight to survive.
The tension in the story arises out of details in the woman’s recollections as she writes her report, help by notes she has kept on a calendar. She uses the act of writing to help maintain her sanity, processing the events that have transpired since the bewildering moment in which the wall radically changed her world. She does this by starting her story at the beginning, when the wall first appeared; but as she writes her report, she cannot help but foreshadow dramatic incidents that have befallen her over the two and a half years. She does this cryptically, clearly attempting to keep dark memories of certain days at bay, even as they unavoidably force themselves into her thoughts. As readers we begin to assume her dread, coming to recognize the devastating impact these hinted-at events will have on the fragile world she has constructed for herself, both physically and mentally.
The woman’s efforts to adapt and survive make up a large part of the story, but a deeper thread winds through the plot, as the woman looks back on her time before the wall, re-evaluating her former life, and more broadly life in that former world now ended by the wall, in the harsh and clarifying light of her new existence. She comes to see the shortcomings of her earlier self, and becomes increasingly dismissive of the miss-placed emphasis she sees people had unthinkingly placed on so many elements of modern life. She gradually discovers that, despite her many difficulties, she is more comfortable in this new, simpler and more natural life, than she had ever been in her old one.
Here in the woods, I am actually in my appropriate place. … how they had all plagued me with things that revolted me. I had only this one, small life, and they hadn’t allowed me to live in peace. Gas ovens, power plants and oil pipelines; now that people are no more, they finally show their true, pitiful face. And back then one had made these things into idols instead of simply useful objects. (243)
Though The Wall can be read as a straight-forward, post-apocalyptic survival novel, Haushofer weaves into the story a thoughtful meditation on the many and varied complexities mankind has created in the modern day world. These complexities have generally been allowed to develop with little thought to their impact; through her narrator, Haushofer makes evident some of what we have sacrificed in the exchange: an ever increasing separation from the natural world of our origins.
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