The Wall by Marlen Haushofer

A wall appears.

Well, it’s an invisible wall, so it doesn’t actually appear. It just is there, one morning.

A woman is trapped. She’s inside the wall. Everyone else, it seems, is outside the wall. Also, they’re all dead. Something happened, and this invisible wall-bubble descended and all the people on the outside turned to stone and a singular woman, inside this bubble, is left alive. Alive, and alone.

“But if time exists only in my head, and I’m the last human being, it will end with my death. The thought cheers me. I may be in a position to murder time.”

The wall doesn’t matter. We don’t ever get an explanation for it, and we get very little in terms of life before. But none of that is important, because this story is not about a wall, and it’s not about the people who died on the other side of the wall, and it’s not about life before the wall, and it’s not about whatever cosmic forces were in play.

“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’s about a woman surviving. It’s about a woman being alone. It’s about a woman dealing with the unforeseeable and unavoidable end of her previous life. And it’s about how she chooses, or doesn’t choose, to participate in the life that opens up to her inside the wall.

“…it still hadn’t quite dawned on me that my former life had come to a sudden end; I knew it, that is, but only in my head, so I didn’t believe it. It’s only when knowledge about something slowly spreads to the whole body that you truly know.”

It’s also about cows, and cats, and a dog, and the need for affection, and the thin lines that separate humans from animals, and the neutrality of nature.

“The cat and I were made of the same stuff, and we were in the same boat, drifting with all living things toward the great dark rapids. As a human being, I alone had the honor of recognizing this, without being able to do anything about it. A dubious gift on the part of nature, if I thought about it.”

If you read any descriptions of this book, you’ll probably find it compared to Robinson Crusoe in one way or another. I mean, okay, yes: it’s about a person alone, doing the work needed to physically survive, so essentially we have the same plot. But our pal Crusoe, if you recall, happens to find a grown-ass man whom he immediately names and claims, in the time-honored traditions of both foursquare gospel churches and, oh yeah, the slave trade. He has ‘his man Friday’ call him Master, for fuck’s sake. (And we’re not even getting into the fact that Crusoe was shipwrecked while on his way to get a load of slaves for his plantation.)

“I was never anything other than a tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world, on top of everything else, that was hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling. …But I should like to grant her one thing: she always had a dim sense of discomfort, and knew that all this was far from enough.”

And in Crusoe’s world, there’s been no inexplicable end to (all the rest of) humanity, nor is there ever a loss of hope at one day being returned to the world he lost. To me, this is such an essential difference in the backdrop of the story that comparing them is dumb.

“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.”

More than that, however, Robinson Crusoe is not about isolation and survival. Robinson Crusoe is a male-fantasy conquest story. The island survival bits (which I love) are a part of the story, sure. But the story is about conquest: Crusoe overcoming a series of trials (like storms and imprisonment), surviving a shipwreck that killed everyone else on board, bringing an island under his ‘dominion,’ rescuing and subsequently enslaving a grown man, fighting a group of cannibals (and doing some more rescues), and finally outsmarting and overcoming a crew of mutineers (in the process, more rescuing!), before returning to England triumphantly, where he found that his plantation made him rich while he was off conquesting an island.

The Wall is not at all about conquest. It is about grief, and relief, and letting go of identity, and heartbreak, and isolation, and love, and trauma, and acceptance.

“My body, more skillful than myself, had adapted itself and limited the burdens of my femininity to a minimum. I could simply forget I was a woman. Sometimes I was a child in search of strawberries, or a young man sawing wood, or, when sitting on the bench holding Pearl on my scrawny lap watching the setting sun, I was a very old, sexless creature. Today the peculiar charm that emanated from me back then has left me entirely.”

It’s a lovely, thoughtful book, tinged with sadness, that talks about mowing hay and taking care of cows and learning not to impose meaning on a world where it doesn’t belong.