John Lanchester: The Wall ISBN 978-0-571-29872-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You are familiar with the feeling: You did something wrong, you begged for pardon, pardon was granted, but the feeling of guilt lingers on, the remorse remains palpable, a barrier between you and the other. “The Wall” is about guilt and it is about us and them. Us, well, that’s us, the present generation. Them, that’s our children, people like Josef Kavanagh and Hifa. What separates us, is the fact that we were born before an irreversible climate catastrophe occurred – the one we did not prevent – while they were born after “the Change” and into a world that is not necessarily worth living in.
For Kavanagh, us refers to the inhabitants of Great Britain, living behind a heavily guarded wall built all along the coastline to protect the country from a rising sea level and refugees fleeing their submerged home countries – them. Or as they are euphemistically called in the novel: the Others. Kavanagh and Hifa are Defenders, young people doing their duty on the wall, watching out for refugees that might approach the wall from the seaside and shooting them. Kavanagh is perfectly aware that if a refugee will come through on his watch, he will be put to sea and no longer belong to what he used to call “us”, but become one of “them”.
“The Wall” is about guilt and responsibility. Lanchester’s novel is a tough one. It pitches us against our children or rather it shows us how our present choices will pitch us against our children. The moral dilemma he sketches strongly resonates with my remorse for not doing enough against climate change, which may lead to a situation where our society will kill less fortunate people so that we may live. And I have to ask myself how I will justify my lack of action in ten or 20 years when I will be challenged by my daughter. A bit like our parents may have challenged our grand-parents by asking why they hadn’t prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.
The wall, as a construction, isn’t perfect, neither are the people defending it. First of all, there are not enough Defenders. After the Change the incentive to reproduce has dramatically sunk. Furthermore there are traitors among the Defenders, siding with the Others. Finally, there are so many Others, many more than there are Defenders. Courage, good planning, luck, desperation – all play a part when a refugee manages to get across the wall, and as Lanchester, says “Others who get over the Wall have to choose between being euthanised, becoming Help or being put back to sea”.
Help. Help are everywhere and do the daily chores for those who are entitled to a little luxury. Help have no names, no feelings and hardly any rights. They are an anonymous mass, owned by the British government, with their only raison d’être to serve as modern slaves in all but name.
The world Lanchester shows us is a gruesome dystopia and fascinating at the same time. An intellectual experiment masterfully narrated and leading to painfully interesting ethical reflections. The world after the Change being what it is, Kavanagh reflects his situation throughout the novel and his personality evolves with each new turning point of the novel.
Exposed to solitude, monotony and bad weather while mounting the guard, his only thought is to get away from the wall as soon as possible. When his squad enjoys a well-deserved rest, it begins to dawn on him that after his two years on the wall, he has nowhere to go to. He harbours ambitious, but vague dreams, at the same time he enjoys the comradeship among the Defenders.
Once Kavanagh has experienced a life-or-death moment, his personal life takes a new trajectory, which leads to the question of responsibility turned upside-down. What kind of responsibility does Kavanagh have towards the generation following his own? Finally betrayal kicks in, and Kavanagh’s ethical considerations become absurd. In a violent society where the “greater good” is more important than basic rights, life is reduced to physical and mental survival. Or so it would seem.
Taken together, all this should be enough to wet your appetite for novel with an exciting plot. I like Lanchaster’s style, and his familiarity with the weather on the British Isles shows the multiple ways to describe cold and wet and windy. I loved that since I experienced the combination of cold and wet and windy myself many times, and yes, there are many different types of cold and wet and windy. And since the weather is what it is, here or on the wall, I recommend a cup of tea and some lovely music from an Other who made it to London before the wall had been built. In the second half of the 18th century, Jacob Kirkman wrote his lovely Sonata I in A Major: