Wilderness survival stories offer narratives of process. How do the protagonists manage to get out alive from the boat, the plane or the spaceship? How do they find shelter? Food? Camaraderie? How do they get home – or recreate it? The answers are based on ingenuity, audacity and resourcefulness.
Some of the best of these books – “Island of the Blue Dolphins”, “My Side of the Mountain” – are tucked away in the children’s section, a disservice to adult readers who may have missed them. This summer’s crop of novels includes an adult story survival novel that’s as thrilling as it is thought-provoking.
And he’s 60 years old.
“The Wall”, written in 1962 by the Austrian author Marlen Haushofer, is his only work translated into English. The novel has received acclaim over the decades and continues to feel remarkably well suited to the concerns of the day.
The story opens with the narrator, a middle-aged widow whose name we never learn, announcing the purpose of the narrative to come. “I’m pretty lonely and have to try to survive the long, dark winter months,” she wrote in a neutral tone. “I undertook this task to keep myself from looking in the dark.”
In a few pages, the reason for his loneliness and apprehension becomes clear. Seven months earlier, the woman had joined her cousin and his wife for a three-day vacation at their hunting lodge in the forest. After arriving, the couple set off for the nearest village with their Bavarian bloodhound, Lynx, while the woman remained at the lodge. The dog returned at nightfall, but the couple never reappeared.
When the woman and the dog go to investigate, they run – literally – to the cause. “A smooth, cool resistance where there could only be air” blocks their way to the village. Calling it “the wall”, she determines that this invisible, impenetrable presence not only prevents her from leaving the forest, but protects her from disaster on the other side. The few humans she can see are frozen in place, as if turned to stone.
“We were in a bad situation, Lynx and I”, assesses the woman. “But we weren’t completely lost, because there were two of us.”
Thus begins the hard work of survival in a wild and rugged patch of Austrian forest by a woman who is completely unprepared for such an ordeal. What she has is common sense; she is keenly aware of the need to procure food, catalog the lodge’s contents, and map her surroundings, all tasks she tackles diligently.
The other life-saving perk of the wife is a growing list of mates. Two days into their predicament, she and Lynx discover a cow — bewildered and in need of milking, but otherwise healthy — near the wall. The woman treats her on the spot, brings her back to the lodge and sets up a shop in a nearby hut. Naming the gentle beast Bella, the woman admits that “that cow, while certainly a blessing, was also a great burden…. She was dependent on me.
Less dependent is a cat who appears on the porch one evening, wary and hesitant. Soon, she too finds her place in the household, becoming “a brave and ruthless beast whom I respected and admired, but who always insisted on her freedom”. The woman’s close relationship with the cat – and, later, her offspring – provides one of the book’s rich delights.
Haushofer chronicles the daily struggles and exploits of this unconventional quartet in one fell swoop: from the first to the last page, nothing slows the narrative flow, neither chapter jumps nor blank spaces. It’s a stylistic choice that suits the inescapable and endless demands of survival in a northern forest. Readers must decide when to pause and breathe, even if it’s tempting to shift gears.
The twin titans of time and hunger defeat the narrator of “The Wall”. An unusual cold front in May highlights the importance of increasing the woodpile before winter, as well as storing hay and planting potatoes and beans. “How terrible to be dependent on an unsatisfied body,” the woman wrote. However, when the first new potatoes sprout, she discovers that she has forgotten the taste of favorite foods from her past. Desire has been replaced by a new satisfaction.
And this is only the beginning of the constant transformation of the woman. As she tackles the tasks ahead of her – whether it’s hauling hay, chopping wood, finding fruit or helping Bella give birth – strength replaces incapacity and tireless driving trumps inertia. Haushofer takes his time to describe these daily efforts and the hard-fought progress that stems from them. It is a captivating read. Page after page, it’s hard not to wonder, “What is I do in his place?
Smoothly translated by Shaun Whiteside, the novel’s no-frills prose and minimal references to its particular era lend it a timeless, meditative weight. The most vivid descriptions seem reserved for the power, menace and beauty of the ubiquitous landscape. At the beginning of their first summer, the woman and her animals climb the mountain to a small pavilion at the edge of a meadow. “It was still moving gently,” she observes of the grassy expanse, “even though I thought the wind was calm.”
The narrator does not hesitate to describe episodes of despair, exhaustion and despair; loneliness also haunts her. These are familiar struggles for many in these pandemic times, which can make these sections hard to take. Time and time again, however, the woman emerges from the darkness through the life within her. “I couldn’t run away and drop my animals,” she tells the reader.
What sets “The Wall” apart from other survival tales is the suppression of the world beyond. While Haushofer never explains exactly what the barrier is, who made it, and why, the woman does occasionally reflect on its origins and implications. Having no one else to convince but herself, the “why” becomes useless. In addition, food must be grown and animals cared for.
A late spasm of violence brings grief, but once again the woman persists. “Something new is coming and I can’t escape it,” she says. “I’ll take care of it and find a way.”
Six decades later, “The Wall” continues to deliver a remarkable story of determination that lingers long after its last page.