Life within The Wall keeps The Others at bay

The US-Mexico border wall in Arizona. Image: By US Customs & Border Protection [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What would it be like to live behind a barrier built to keep the world out? The Wall explores a post-climate change world.

LONDON, 25 April, 2019 − John Lanchester’s latest novel, The Wall, is pure fiction. Isn’t it?

It has haves and have-nots battling each other in the aftermath of dramatic alterations in climate. Right now, ignored for the most part by the outside world, thousands of people are being held in appalling conditions in camps in Libya.

Libya is a key setting-off point for migrants, mostly from countries in Africa, seeking a better life across the Mediterranean in Europe. Often they are fleeing from violence and persecution in their home countries. Many are escaping from hunger and the impact climate change is having on agricultural communities.

The European Union, anxious to secure its borders, has been sending millions of euros to military forces in Libya to control the migrant flow.

Now there is a growing threat of full-scale civil war in Libya, and the migrants are trapped – often going for days without provisions – as fighting goes on around them. It is a humanitarian disaster – and a terrible indictment of EU migration policy.

Frantic search

In Lanchester’s futuristic novel The Wall, people are roaming the world in ever greater numbers. We are not told when the book is set but, as with those migrants captive in Libya today, they are desperately searching for some sort of safe haven.

To prevent incursions, a massive concrete wall has been built around the entire coast of Britain.

Kavanagh, the book’s main character, is what’s called a Defender, part of an army of guards which patrols the wall to prevent it being breached by the seaborne forces of those known as the Others − in today’s parlance, migrants or refugees.

Slowly, as in the best kind of mystery writing, we accumulate some background. There has been a momentous event which, in Defender terminology, is referred to as the Change but in the language of one of the Others is called kuishia, a Swahili word that means “the ending”.

“In living memory the sea floor below us was dry land. All drowned now. Part of the old drowned world”

We are not told directly about the Change but can surmise it refers to a profound shift in the global climate leading to, among other things, a sudden rise in sea levels.

It is a harsh, amoral, world. For Kavanagh and his fellow Defenders, all Others are the enemy and have to be killed. The only Others allowed to exist within the wall are what are called Help – virtual slaves who assist in doing menial jobs or who can be called upon to act as carers.

Lanchester might be writing of an imagined future, but there are striking parallels with today’s labour market in the UK and elsewhere. And of course the book appears at a time when countries seem to be increasingly turning in on themselves: walls and other barriers are not going up just in the US.

In the book the Change is described as happening over a relatively short time span, in the space of a single generation.

Kavanagh goes home on leave. He doesn’t like his parents and they feel uncomfortable round their son.

Culpable generation

“It’s guilt: mass guilt, generational guilt”, Kavanagh tells us. “The olds feel they irretrievably fucked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it. You know what? It’s true. That’s exactly what they did. They know it, we know it. Everybody knows it.”

The world’s beaches have disappeared, along with the old riverscapes. Kavanagh leaves his parents as they watch images of the past on TV – an old documentary showing golden beaches and surfers cavorting in the waves.

An elite constantly warns that as the Change continues and intensifies, the numbers of Others attempting to scale the wall will grow. There are traitors within who might even try to assist these invaders.

We are drawn into Kavanagh’s world. He is bored, he yearns to be away from the wall, yet it becomes a part of him.

Kavanagh falls in love. He gets drunk. He is hungry. (Britain has became self-sufficient in food, though this seems limited to berries and root crops, with turnips a staple).

Fierce fighters

There are dramatic, deadly, fights. Lanchester is a master at letting the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. Only once are we given some hint of the Others’ identities.

“They were trained and competent. They were from sub-Saharan Africa. It was quite likely that they had been professional soldiers in their previous lives.”

For failing to stop a group of Others from vaulting the wall, Kavanagh and his fellow guards have their all-important identity microchips removed from their bodies and are left to fend for themselves on a boat at sea. They come across an outcrop.

“We stood for a moment and looked at the island and I imagined what it had once been like – beaches, gentle slopes, maybe a few houses down near the water.

“In living memory the sea floor below us was dry land. All drowned now. Part of the old drowned world.”

Some might view Lanchester’s book as pure fiction, a rattling good yarn set in a future that will never come about. Let’s hope, for all our sakes and for the sake of future generations, they are right. − Climate News Network

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The Wall, Faber & Faber, £14.99 in the UK.