cover image The Wall

The Wall

H.G. Adler, trans. from the German by Peter Filkins. Random, $30 (672p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9306-6

This is Adler’s third (posthumous) and final work in the Shoah trilogy (after The Journey and Panorama), one of the very few works of Holocaust fiction written by a survivor. The author, once a prisoner at Theresienstadt and three other concentration camps, crafted this modernist homage to his despair over the course of many years; it was first published in 1989. His protagonist, Arthur—most certainly Adler himself—is an exile in the “Metropolis,” a thinly disguised London. He lives a bemused existence with his second wife, Joanna, and their two children, going through the motions of being a father, and indeed of being human. He has suffered something so dreadful that it is almost impossible to articulate, but it seems that his first wife perished in the war, as did his parents. In his dreams, which reflect in an absurdist way the real horror he faced, he returns to his father’s haberdashery in Prague; sometimes his parents are still alive and sometimes they die before his very eyes. Neighbors recognize and pity Arthur, knowing more than he about the fate of his family. He reminisces or dreams about being taken in by friends he does not recollect, of interacting with scholarly colleagues in London, and of meeting his beloved Joanna, on whom he relies utterly as his only link to the world in which he now finds himself adrift. He also imagines witnessing his own death. The symbolic wall of the title is purported to be the past, but it is much more: an existential barrier made of pain that separates him from the rest of humanity. The past and the present are indistinguishable in the stream of Adler’s consciousness, but this distracts very little from the story. The writing is sonorous and so entirely devastating that the reader is compelled to pore over every word. One cannot begin to share this author’s anguish, but can participate in not allowing it to be forgotten. (Dec.)