Friday, May 24, 2013

Omega Woman: Marlen Haushofer's THE WALL

[Somehow, the full version of this, which was posted, got replaced by an earlier version. Urgh.]

I knew nothing of this novel till I saw the trailer for the film:

Published in 1962, The Wall is the only work of Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer's to have been translated into English. It's unrelenting.

The story's initiating event, established in the first pages of the book as it's established in the first moments of the trailer, comes when a woman visiting friends in the Austrian countryside awakes in the morning to find the friends have not returned and a transparent wall has blocked the road. This wall, after some investigation, seems to have no end, and every form of animal life on the far side has frozen in place, dead.

That's it. Our protagonist quickly sizes up her situation and sets to preparing for an uncertain period in which she must provide food and other necessities for herself, the dog and cat who live on the property, and a single female cow. Other animals live on this side of the wall, but they are non-actors, prey, or predators in relation to this small family circle. In Robinson Crusoe–fashion, the narrator takes the contents of her own diary and turns it into a reconstructed narrative of survival, recounting everything from haymaking to beangrowing to the illnesses that afflict the tiny group. Interspersed throughout, and integrated beautifully into the tone of tense description and observation, are more philosophical thoughts prompted by the terrible isolation, thoughts honed more sharply because they come from a point after certain sad events which the narrator mentions often, though she doesn't encounter them directly till near the end.

What is a human without other humans? What is a human without something to care for, some project to engage in? And, she wonders, what does it mean to be human if humans are the cause of the wall? Is this what we do, destroy one another out of our confusion?

Though the plot is little more than a succession of days and minor events, the profound isolation of the character lends to every moment a vividness, a clarity the narrator recognizes as missing from her former life of time and tasks, and this pulls the narrative along, that and a sense of unease about such a depopulated world. She is now dedicated to that which is necessary, but also acutely aware of what is beautiful, what touches her, and what endures after the last human observer is gone. There is an arc to the narrative, both dramatic and intellectual, so the work does have more shape than my description might suggest, and it's more riveting than the reader might expect.

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