Marlen Haushofer's The Wall (Die Wand translated from German by Shaun Whiteside) is both engaging and disturbing in almost equal measures. I found myself doing something with it that I rarely do with other reads--three quarters through the story I found myself skimming through the remaining pages and then reading the last one ahead of time. There was the anticipation of wanting to know what was going to happen and also the desire to gage just how badly it might end. I thought it might make reading those remaining pages easier.
In case you are unfamiliar with the premise of The Wall, to put it very broadly, it is the story of how one woman copes with possibly being the last human alive on earth. As you can imagine, the tension becomes almost unbearable as the story unfolds, and I had to try and find answers to the many questions that had been plaguing me as I read. But Haushofer does not provide the reader with a neat and tidy ending or explanations. This is a thoughtful book, so frightening and disorienting in some ways, but a meditation, too, on what it means to be human. About how to exist and how to survive and just what is important in this life.
Not being familiar with the author I was very surprised to note that the book was published in 1968. Thinking of the world now, I thought it surely must have been a contemporary novel. It might be categorized as dystopian fiction, but I think that is not a quite accurate description. It certainly has that feel to it of an 'end of the world as we know it' story, the situation is perhaps the result of some human or ecological catastrophe. The reader never is told exactly what has happened. We know only what the narrator sees and experiences. This isn't a story about how such a catastrophe happens but how one survives the difficulties and solitariness of being alone save for a dog, a cow and a few cats as companions. They are all to lesser or greater degrees her lifelines, actually in more ways than one.
The narrator, an unnamed woman of about forty, is visiting friends in the Austrian countryside. The setting is striking. The Alps are not far off. There are meadows and valleys and forests. She has left her children in the city to spend some time with a couple she knows and is staying in their hunting lodge. She decides to remain behind when they set off for an evening in the local village leaving their dog, Lynx, in her care. When they don't return she is not at first worried. But when the next day they still do not come back she sets off walking in the direction of the village only to be stopped in her tracks by an invisible wall. Everything looks normal. The sky is blue, the sun shines and the pastures are lush and green. It is a beautiful spring day. But the valley appears to be sealed in a massive clear dome. She can look down into the neighboring valley but she cannot pass into it. She is sealed off from the rest of the world. Strangely what she sees on the other side seems almost normal, but everyone she sees in the far distance is frozen in time. It is as if they are only sleeping. Whatever happened, and she believes it must be an invasion by an enemy of some sort, simply put an end to human and animal life. Save for an unknown area on her side of the wall.
The story is told in one long narration as she sets down to paper what happened and how she has tried to exist and survive. She is writing a report in the hopes that someday someone might find it, though she is not sure it will ever be read or if she, too, will simply fade from being and be forgotten. Her hosts had left the hunting lodge fairly plentifully supplied, but the food and basic necessities are limited. There had been talk (keeping in mind when the story was written--during the Cold War) of nuclear disasters, but she must still learn how to be self-sufficient. There is life on her side of the wall. Animals are in some abundance, but she must come to terms with killing in order to provide food for herself and the dog on whom she becomes dependent not only for her survival but also for her sanity. There is nothing simple about the animals in this story, however, they are as fully important as the narrator and true characters in their own right.
This was for me, an utterly harrowing read, though an absolutely worthwhile one as well. I could only take it in small doses, though Haushofer drops hints along the way of things to come. There are surprises but she doesn't leave the reader totally unprepared. The tension comes from knowing bits of the outcome but not knowing how or why or when they will come in the story. The why is never really explained and I am sure I will be thinking about it for a long time coming. This is a story filled with all sorts of existential angst, though the narrator has little time to wallow in self-pity and must get on with the business of trying to stay alive against all odds. She must become interdependent with animals and with the natural world just outside her door. It's a stark reminder of just what makes us human.
I discovered Marlen Haushofer thanks to Caroline. She wrote about the book last spring. This is the first of my book choices for German Literature month. I'm continuing on with Christa Wolf and this week's reading will include some Kafka.