Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 22: Naturalizing the Wall

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 22: Naturalizing the Wall

Article excerpt

In W.T. Tyler's The Man Who Lost the War (1980), a panoramic opening paragraph describes Europe's autumn of 1961:

Early snow fell in the Alps that autumn and blocked the Grand St. Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy. There were blizzards along the southern Swiss plain, freezing rain over the meadows of the Piedmont and Lombardy. On the slopes of the Carpathians, Polish herdsmen watched the wolves withdraw with their half-grown cubs to the lower ranges and prepared for an unseasonable winter. By the first week of October a light frost lay over the Berlin Wall, barely two months old. The freeze had cracked its footings and fissured its mortar joints. Technicians from the East German construction industries inspected it in the bitter morning wind, standing huddled in cheap overcoats and machine-made hats, ashamed at what the frost had done to that clumsy, scab-built abomination, a scandal to their trades. (3)

In a list of natural European barriers (the Alps, the Carpathians), the Wall is set apart by its "clumsiness" and cracks, questioning its place among them. Much as similar conditions are described on either side of the Alps, the novel's first pages go on to depict parallel scenes in Moscow, Washington, and the two sides of Berlin.

W.H. Auden's "Memorial for the City" had already described East and West Germany's separation in 1949: "Across the plains,/ Between two hills, two villages, two trees, two friends,/ The barbed wire runs which neither argues or explains/ But, where it likes, a place, a path, a railroad ends,/ The humor, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,/ The pattern of the City, are erased." One wonders, though, if "the pattern" of a city often linked to violence and terror is also erased. In Tyler's novel, fog encroaches on Berlin, burying its airports, obscuring its "canals and the narrow streets" (195), and nullifying divisions between night and day, cold and hot, sides of the canals and streets, inside and outside: "All of the identifiable landmarks seemed obliterated. Only the checkpoints into West Berlin seemed fixed, their lights a mustard yellow in the fog, like gas blisters on the gray shroud of the city" (195). All divisions are erased except for the Wall, which itself embodies all other divisions.

If, as Patrick Major writes, "Anglo-American readers probably derived most of their notions about the Wall from the works of thriller writers" (182), what they probably noted more than anything was both the fact of its seeming impenetrability and the exaltation in the audacity of its penetration. For, much as de Certeau wrote "[w]hat the map cuts up, the story cuts across" (1984: 129), most British and American protagonists in such fictions do cross it, whether through hair-raising schemes going over or under, or through Checkpoint Charlie. Such thrillers often implicitly argue against the Wall by making its breaches symbolic of family reunion (as in The Prince of Berlin, Berlin Tunnel21, The Story of Henri Tod and Secret Father), or simply register indignation at its injunction, as in Steel's novel, where a protagonist finds the Wall beyond the Tiergarten turns "the once flourishing Unter den Linden into a dead end" (431), echoing the frustrations of Western investors that the Wall (and the Iron Curtain itself) blocked the expansion of free trade. It often seems the case here, as de Certeau wrote, that stories' role is "to authorize the establishment, displacement or transcendence of limits," setting in opposition "two movements that intersect," both "setting and transgressing limits" through the "essential narrative figures" of "the frontier and the bridge" (1984: 123).

The Wall likewise has its place in unions or separations of lovers. Charles W. Thayer's Checkpoint (1964) was probably the first American novel to take as a trope the German woman trapped behind the Wall, rescued by an American (in this case, her prewar ex-lover). But the romantic theme, heavy with political symbolism, was popularized by Donald Lindquist's Berlin Tunnel 21 (1978), in which an American-German couple is dramatically separated by the Wall's construction in 1961, the American working to bring his lover back from East Berlin. …

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