When I told my German friend we were reading ‘Die Wand’ by Marlen Haushofer in German book group she was delighted and intrigued, saying it was ‘der Knüller der sechziger’, the sensation of the sixties, especially for women’s groups. The novel was completed in the early 60s and published in Germany in 1968.The English translation by Shaun Whiteside was first published in the early 90s and has just been reissued by Quartet. So what is the appeal of this book, to what extent is it a product of the 60s and does it have a lasting resonance? The novel takes the form of a report, written by the nameless first person protagonist, about her situation: for the past few months she has been living alone in the mountains with only a few animals for company, foraging for food and fuel for survival. She came into the mountains with her cousin and husband to stay at their hunting lodge. When they don’t return after an afternoon walk to the village, she tries to trace their steps, but the road is cut off by an invisible wall and she can go no further. Beyond the wall she sees the figure of a farmer, frozen in a movement of bending to get water from a fountain, but no other people are to be seen and from that day she has no human contact. There is no explanation for the wall, though she speculates on there being an enemy alien invasion which has somehow taken over the world on the other side, and her resulting isolation and imposed self reliance certainly has a post-apocalypse feel. This then feeds into the feminist theme: she writes that from being a 60s wife- a woman not required to make decisions or plans in her life, essentially passive- she is now planting, hunting, storing, caring for herself and the animals, employing untapped intelligence and resourcefulness . Physically she changes too, losing her femininity becoming ‘more like a tree than a person, a tough brown branch that needs its whole strength to survive’. Yet the report also dwells on her struggle to retain her sanity with no human contact and reflects on what it is to be human. She transfers her need to love, which she sees as a basic human instinct, to the animals around her and the dog Lynx, the cats and the cow Bella become significant characters in the story; they are interconnected and mutually reliant for their survival. I loved the detailed observation in this novel, of the natural environment of mountains and forest, of the animals’ behaviour and the meticulous account of the many practical tasks the protagonist has to undertake. I also enjoyed the evocation of her emotional and physical states, the exhaustion, occasional elation and love for the animals, the rawness of these feelings being exposed once the veneer of civilisation has been stripped away. So the novel does reflect issues important in the 60s- the threat of nuclear war hovers when she speculates on her cousin building a bunker for protection, the possible enemy or alien invasion calls to mind John Wyndham’s triffids, the recognition of female passivity Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’. Yet the world is arguably still now on the verge of catastrophe with the different threats to nature caused by climate change and the presence of war, conflict and invasion in different parts of the globe. We are as alienated as the protagonist from nature and the source of our food through mass consumption and so called civilisation and might have to learn to rely on our wits as she does in the case of catastrophe. In many cultures women are still denied an active and equal role and their sex is their defining feature as human beings- liberating then, for them to make their own autonomous decisions. And on an existential level we are still human beings concerned with birth, love and death. It is all there in this absorbing and moving novel.
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