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Marlen Haushofer: Die Wand (The Wall)

The unnamed narrator of this novel has been invited by Hugo Rüttlinger and his wife Luise, the narrator’s cousin, to stay at their hunting lodge. Hugo is rich, having made his money by manufacturing a special kind of saucepan. Though not the slightest bit interested in hunting, he has nevertheless built this lodge, so his friends, business associates and his wife can go out hunting while he dozes in the lodge. As it is the era when there was fear of a nuclear attack, he has stocked the lodge with all sorts of non-perishable provisions and equipment in the case of just such an eventuality. The narrator, who is a widow with two grown-up daughters, is happy to stay with them. She does not go hunting, either, but is happy to sit with Hugo. She has made an arrangement with them, whereby she will arrive early at the lodge, collecting the dog, Lynx, from the huntsman and they will join her in the evening. She prepares a meal and waits for them. They do not arrive. Eventually, she goes to bed. When she gets up the next morning, they still have not arrived. She assumes that they must have stayed in the village, though this is quite unusual. The lodge was at the end of a gorge, so she sets out with Lynx. Lynx is ahead of her and lets out a cry of pain and seems to be bleeding. She can see nothing wrong but proceeds cautiously. Suddenly, she bumps her head on something. She can see nothing but there is something there.

After investigation, it is clear that there is something like an invisible wall, stretching for what seems an infinite distance, blocking her way to the village and, indeed, to anywhere else where there might be people. She can see the village in the distance. She can also see the neighbouring farms, including a farmer standing up by a fence but not moving, and a woman sitting on a fence, also immobile. Some cows also seem to be lying in the field, not moving. It soon becomes apparent that all of these are dead. She waits, knowing that someone is bound to appear, to rescue her, but no-one comes. The book tells the story, taken from her notebooks, of how she copes with this situation. She does not write her name in the notebook because no-one uses her name any more.

Initially, she is naturally very concerned and wonders how far this wall stretches and who has been affected. She has a radio but nothing appears to be broadcasting. Who put this wall up? Was it some foreign superpower and, if so, would they soon be coming to claim their conquered territory? Has anyone survived? She tries following the wall but it seems to be infinite. She can clearly see beyond the wall, which is invisible, but there is absolutely no sign of life – no birds or animals, no people, not even any planes. She soon accepts that she will not be rescued, particularly when the spring season comes, a time when many tourists come, and no-one appears. She accepts that many people or even everyone else is dead but she cannot accept that her children have died. Eventually, she collects a small menagerie She already has Lynx to look after and to protect her. She finds a cow who clearly needs milking, which, with some difficulty, she does. She milks it regularly and even makes a byre for it. Eventually, it will produce a (male) calf. One day, a cat arrives from nowhere and, despite its initial hostility, it needs her and the cow’s milk, as much as she needs its companionship. It will later produce kittens.

Fortunately, with Hugo’s foresight she has plentiful supplies, but she will later grow her own beans and potatoes. She will also go both foraging and hunting deer (which are plentiful), something she does very reluctantly. She takes increasingly long walks into the woods on the mountain slopes behind the lodge and finds a few supplies in various woodman’s huts, as well as trout and deer, but no evidence of any living humans. There are birds and other small animals – the cat catches some of them. Indeed, with her small menagerie, she accepts that she is better off with animals than with humans.

Much of the book is about the practical steps she takes to survive but it is also concerned with her thoughts, including her memories of her past (though she gradually forgets her past life) as well as how she is coping and can cope with solitude, something very much helped by her animal companions. Indeed, it is because of her animals and her need to feed, milk and care for them, that she never ventures too far from the lodge. At times, she feels like giving up, particularly when things go wrong, such as the death of an animal or her own illness. She also occasionally suspects she sees some evidence of human activity but nothing ever materialises.

This could have been a very boring book but Haushofer tells her story very well, always leaving us wondering what happened and why and whether someone will turn up to help or to rescue her or with an explanation. But supplies, including the supply of paper to write her account, are running low.

Publishing history

First published in German 1963 by Mohn Verlag
First English translation 1990 by Quartet Books