The Wall by John Lanchester
I had bought The Wall by John Lanchester a few months back, before the lockdown frenzy hit us. I finally picked it up last week, dusted it off my bookshelf and started reading it. Only to be sucked into this disquieting fable that kept me wondering and puzzling out a lot of the allegories and metaphorical references, not quite sure if I was even right. Despite the lacklustre writing about one of the most 'uninteresting' protagonists ever (An entitled, misguided new adult conscripted into national duty to protect the boundaries of a island nation, UK from refugees and immigrants trying to climb up and over to get citizenship within this nation) I realised the novel could be about anything. Climactic changes? Human resilience ? Heroism? undaunted sense of patriotic duty? xenophobia? right-wing nationalism?
Despite all this, I actually enjoyed the book. A LOT. I cannot exactly pinpoint the reasons for my enjoyment. Because this novel definitely stops a mile off the "literary" genre. It's dystopian fiction, a harrowing vision of the near-future that is scarily plausible and detailed out enough to be able for the readers to place this in time/place as similar to our current and near future. Maybe it was this sense of 'realism' that seeps into back of your mind even as you turn that last page and start to sympathise with the 'narrator'.
The story starts with Joseph Kavanagh, a twenty-year old getting drafted to serve his mandatory two years on the "Wall". It's all windconcreteskysea for the next foreseeable future for the young man who goes on to tell us in excruciating detail about his first long never-ending day on the wall, staring at nothing, enjoying the nutty flavour of the protein bars and his infrequent interactions with the other "Defenders" on the wall, including the mysterious Captain. For you see, it is mandatory for everybody born in the country to serve their two years on the wall. That is a fate you cannot escape unless of course you are an "Elite" ( by which am sure, the author was taking a dig at the right wing politicians who have brought up the needs for Walls/ Boundaries in the real world today as well) they are tasked with protecting the coasts in this time, where a climactic event simply referred to as the Change has affected the world. Beaches have disappeared, water levels have risen and xenophobia rules the day where the government has built a long Wall to keep out the Others. for a long time I was puzzling out what the Others could be - are they aliens? Perhaps human beings transformed by this Change? Answers don't come easy and in many cases, they don't come at all. It's equally frustrating and rewarding, for it forces the reader to rack his brains.
How Kavanagh's life unfolds in the wake of this duty on the Wall as a Defender, forms the bulk of the story. The narrative crawls, slowly along, just like another day on the wall. Just another seven hundred twenty nine more days of this utterly boring routine. But then things start looking up and Kavanagh's life is disrupted by the attack by the Others on the wall. In the middle, Kavanagh also gets to befriend one of his neighbours on the wall, Hifa who just happens to be a girl. A hesitant friendship that blooms into a love story necessitated by loneliness and bitterness and yeah, Type 2 cold. The story takes a dramatic turn by the third Act and then I couldn't turn the pages faster to get to the bittersweet ending.
As far as lead protagonists go, Joseph Kavanagh has to be the most boring, entitled young man ever. He blames his parents' generation for having brought about the Change, his two parents who cannot wait for him to get away from their home so they can get back to their routines and TV. His relationship with Hifa, a tender hesitant love-story that almost came to nought, is saved by a disaster that befalls both of them. The only thing that redeems him is his strict sense of duty.
While the novel is actually driven by this unnatural fear of the Others getting through the Wall ( the punishment for which, is the ones responsible on the Wall being put out to the sea, unfair and cruel, yes.) we never get to see or experience the Others. Except as domesticated "Help". It's a pathetic state of affairs where lines drawn on the maps are here to stay translated to miles and miles of undulating concrete Walls and the unflinching vision of the ultra-nationalists has come true, too soon. Despite conveying that state of catatonic boredom that inflicts the protagonists and his (un)merry bunch of Defenders, I was drawn into this horrific vision. I wish the author had played out the generational conflict a bit more - hinted at with both Kavanagh's parents and even Hifa's mother. Or taken the liberty to perhaps introduce a POV that explored the state of affairs of the Others.
But it ends all too soon, with questions and loopy hypotheses in your mind, still afresh and unanswered. But the story isn't about what happens to Joseph Kavanagh. This is story about an all too plausible future, where diplomats driven by their nationalist fervour decide to push certain people outside the lines and hapless others left inside to wonder about their uncertain futures. It's a cruel apathetic world that we are speeding towards. And John Lanchester's take on a post-Brexit world is scary enough for us to scramble for options.