Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

EUROPE

A couple of weeks ago I was looking through my shelves for pandemic lit, and was reminded of the book The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. This book, her most famous work (published in the 1960s, and appearing in English translation in 1991), seems to have fallen off the radar a bit since the author’s death in 1970, but was a very well-known feminist novel in the German-speaking world in its heyday. It was also revived as a film a few years ago, which I may need to check out.

The protagonist, holidaying in the Austrian mountains, wakes to find herself apparently the only living survivor of a bizarre event that has caused an invisible wall to spring up, beyond which all humanity seem to have been instantly frozen, struck dead doing whatever they were doing when the wall appeared (perhaps the result of some kind of a nuclear event?). This premise sounds ridiculous, and I guess it is, but the seriousness and reflectiveness of the prose means it doesn’t seem silly, just odd and terrifying

The nameless, middle-aged woman, in her previous life the mother of two grown-up daughters, now finds herself unexpectedly completely alone except for a loyal, loving dog, Lynx, a cat or two, a cow she calls Bella and her calf, Bull. The woman, who was staying with her cousin Luise and brother-in-law Hugo before humanity was seemingly wiped out, makes use of her slightly neurotic brother-in-law’s living arrangements, which means, as a consequence, she is initially handily well-stocked for surviving the apocalypse.

Nevertheless, Hugo’s supplies can only take her so far, and she is compelled to learn various survival skills, such as basic animal husbandry and farming, and finds herself revelling in her body’s unexpected capabilities even while her anxieties mount as to how she will endure.

The book is a first-person, diary-style account of the protagonist’s experience of life in the dystopia in which she finds herself. My copy includes an accolade from Doris Lessing on the cover, comparing the book to Robinson Crusoe. And it is perhaps a sort of female version of that tale. The woman’s painstaking descriptions of the tasks she undertakes day to day are meditative – and sometimes monotonous. I suppose there is an inherent monotony in relating the essential tasks of seasonal survival!

One day I shall no longer exist, and no one will cut the meadow, the thickets will encroach upon it and later the forest will push as far as the wall and win back the land that man has stolen from it. Sometimes my thoughts grow confused, and it is as if the forest has put down roots in me, and is thinking its old, eternal thoughts with my brain. And the forest doesn’t want human beings to come back.”

The woman has plenty of time to reflect on the nature of her isolation, and the nature and meaning (if any) of humanity, while caring for her animals and being totally self-reliant. Becoming reliant too on the company of her fellow living creatures, she is heavily aware of the burden of care that they have entrusted to her, and also nails the constant underlying concerns that underpin motherhood:

I’ve suffered from anxieties like these as far back as I can remember, and I will suffer from them for as long as any creature is entrusted to me. Sometimes, long before the wall existed, I wished I was dead, so that I could finally cast off my heavy load; a man wouldn’t have understood, and the women felt exactly the same as I did. And so we preferred to chat about clothes, friends and the theatre, and laugh, keeping our secret, consuming worry in our eyes.”

Her physical appearance becomes irrelevant, even as she marvels as her increasingly gender-less, strong, wiry frame.

“I thought about my old life and found it unsatisfactory in all respects. I had achieved little that I had wanted, and everything I had achieved I had ceased to want.”

At times, the woman’s life seems almost utopian, as she basks in nature during the summer months, surrounded by the uncomplicated warmth of her animals.

I’d spent most of my life struggling with daily human concerns. Now that I had barely anything left, I could sit in peace on the bench and watch the stars dancing against the black firmament.”

At other times, the harsh brutality of her existence is all too evident. A bout of terrible toothache is all but impossible to bear, and when it settles she ponders how her teeth are “fixed in my jaw like time bombs“. (Now that my own local dentist is closed for who knows how long I’ve been feeling this, and obsessively tending to my own teeth, after having a nasty abscess and root canal treatment at the end of February!)

It was a little unsettling (bit of British under-statement there) to re-read this book at a time when a killer virus is raging its way throughout the world, with a vaccine seemingly a long way off, and with no real knowledge of whether it is possible to build up long-lasting immunity. When the protagonist sees her life in an unblinkered way, it forces the reader (er, me!) to confront new, very uncomfortable realities in their own life.

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2 Comments

  1. My goodness! That was a brave book to read In These Times!! I have been panicky about my teeth as I had an infection a few months ago. Now I really do understand why my grandma had all her teeth OUT on the eve of the Second World War! (she lived until 2017 …). Something a little more comforting next, perhaps?

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