Lines in the Sand
Hatherley, Owen, New Statesman (1996)
Walls: Travels Along the Barricades
Marcello Di Cintio
Union Books, 288pp, [pounds sterling]14.99
In Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, there is a small display of Wall fragments. Next to this are panels showing the erection of the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart" in 1961. On one of them, at one point, was graffiti across the East/West Berlin border, with "USA" and "Mexico" written on each side. That scribble does not feature in Marcello Di Cintio's Walls but it may as well have. This travel book is an exploration of the surviving walls that mark borders and bifurcate urban areas all over the world. The Berlin Wall is hardly mentioned because it no longer exists--but it was also, Di Cintio writes, deeply unusual as walls go. Despite its name, it was built to keep people in. Those built to keep people out--of Spain, of the US, of Israel, of the Short Strand--have proven considerably more enduring.
Timely as the book is, there are absences. No gated communities are included, although Di Cintio is sharp on the various euphemisms--gates, fences, "peace lines"--used to make walls sound like something other than walls. His book has a wide geographical sweep. Beginning with the walls built by Morocco to control insurgents in the Western Sahara, it takes in the West Bank wall, the fortifications built recently along the border between India and Bangladesh and, in a final and welcome surprise, the barrier in his native Canada that divides the "garden city" of Mount Royal and the working-class district of Parc-Extension in Montreal--erected in the 1950s and still standing.
The most penetrating chapters are those either on walls that bisect small areas--such as Belfast or Nicosia in Cyprus--or on those that run through geopolitical fault lines, as in Israel/Palestine, the US/Mexico and Spain/Morocco, where the first and third worlds rub up against each other.
Along with the geographical sweep come all the conventions of travel writing. Like most genres, travel writing is an acquired taste, a peculiarly middle-class genre in which authors describe at length the smells, tastes and picturesque customs of a given area and very seldom bother to explain how they managed to get to the place they're writing about or how they came to know these eloquent people from all walks of life. As writers in this mode go, Di Cintio is very good--honest, sharp, nuanced and vivid--but it's hard not to be constantly distracted by apparently irrelevant questions such as: "How do you just go to Western Sahara and hang out with guerrillas in tents in the desert? Do you just turn up? Was it just luck that your two guides in Belfast turned out to be ex-members of the IRA and UDA? …