Friday, July 11, 2014

This Is the End

I ought to mention another book I've liked recently, Marlen Haushofer's The Wall.  Originally published in German in 1963, it was translated into English in 1990.  Haushofer herself died young, not quite fifty years old, of cancer in 1970, and her work attracted little attention until years later, when it was taken up and championed by feminists and environmentalists.  Until very recently, The Wall was her only work available in English, but that changed at around the time Julian Pölsler's 2012 film adaptation was released, and now several other of her books have been translated.  A review of the DVD made me aware of The Wall, and I decided to read the book before I watched the movie.

The premise of The Wall is that the narrator, a fortyish widow, goes on vacation in the mountains with her cousin and her cousin's husband.  She stays in their cabin one evening when the others drive into town.  When they still haven't returned the next morning, she discovers that there is an invisible but impassible barrier between her neighborhood and the rest of the world.  Through it she can see an elderly couple, seemingly frozen in place. There's a radio in the cabin, but all she can find is static.  Gradually she realizes that she's probably the only human being left alive, perhaps on the planet, and must figure out how to survive with very limited resources.  For company she has only her cousin's dog Lynx, and later a cat and a cow.

There's almost no action in The Wall, aside from a brief moment of violence towards the end, which the narrator foreshadows early on, and some readers (mostly, I suspect, younger males) have objected to this.  No exploding heads, no car crashes, no explanation of where the wall came from, no rescue, no romance.  But Haushofer meticulously depicted the narrator's achievement of her survival, along with her fears and doubts and abandonment of hope.  The book is tightly written, and I found it fascinating but also profoundly disturbing.

Some critics have compared The Wall to Robinson Crusoe, and there's some validity to that since the appeal of the story lies largely in the narrator's account of her survival strategies.  Haushofer wrote to a friend that the writing was hard work because "I must continuously inquire whether what I say about animals and plants is actually correct."  Her attention to detail gives the novel a very rich texture.

The Wall is often called "dystopian," which is correct insofar as the narrator's situation is far from idyllic, but a dystopia usually refers to a society, and the narrator is alone except for her animal companions, with whom she gets along quite well.  With some irony the book could also be seen as utopian, as the narrator reflects on her troubled relations with other people, her happiness with her animals, and the freedom solitude gives her not to worry about how she appears to others.  She is often lonely, however, though not for romance; at one point she reflects that she wouldn't mind the company of an older woman.

Is The Wall a feminist novel?  Yes, in the sense that it puts a woman's experience and perspective in the foreground of the story without apology.  Is it about humanity's relation to nature, as some readers have said?  Yes, but I'm not sure it's therefore an environmentalist novel any more than, say, Robinson Crusoe would be.  I've seen its spiritual aspects stressed too, and that's accurate enough, as the narrator reflects on the nature of self and her place in the universe.

For me, though, the most prominent theme of The Wall was its contemplation of mortality.  I often thought while I read it of The Turin Horse, Béla Tarr's 2011 film about an old farmer, his daughter, and their horse, who find that their already restricted lives are being narrowed even further as a mysterious (allegorical?) night descends on them.  As the film proceeds, they discover that they can't leave their land as the horse refuses to move, and eventually they're trapped in their house in complete darkness.  Like The Wall, The Turin Horse has little action of the kind that would appeal to fanboys; it's structured around the characters' numbing routines, which they continue as best they can to the bitter end, depicted in long takes that show everything they do, more or less in real time.  And it seemed to me that The Turin Horse was about death, which is also the end of the world, and vice versa.  The inexorability of the end's slow approach was quietly terrifying. 

The same is true of The Wall: the narrator knows that she must work hard to sustain herself and the animals, which she feels both as a burden but also as a reason to carry on.  She doesn't mind dying herself so much, but worries about the dog and cow, who are dependent on her care, and the deaths they'd suffer if she gave up or died before they did.  She gradually gives up hope of escape or rescue, let alone knowing why the world changed as it did.  The claustrophobic feel of the story symbolizes the approach of individual mortality for me, and like The Turin Horse, the effect is both frightening and fascinating.

I don't, however feel a need to reduce The Wall to a single theme.  What makes it a great book, in my opinion, is that it contains all these aspects, intricately woven together in a deceptively simple tale.  I expect to reread it at least once before very long.  I'm very glad I found out about it.