Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Wall, by William Sutcliffe

Hands up if you like dystopia books. Hands up if you think dystopia books are important, fictional methods of pointing out inconsistencies in social order and social thinking. Or if you think they are a way of extrapolating a political idea into a worst-case scenario.

Hands up if you think dystopias don’t exist today. Right now, right here, in our modern world.

The Wall, in its basic form, is a literary dystopia. Joshua lives on one side of the Wall, relatively privileged, plenty of food on the table, nice clothes, a room full of books and games. Joshua’s world is under constant threat, though, from The Enemy. They want to bomb Joshua, his people, his town Amarias. They want to steal Amarias’s land. They want to shoot and kill. This is why the Wall is there: to protect Amarias, to keep the Enemy at bay, controlled.

To Joshua, the Enemy are a faceless people, a people to be kept at arm's length. But when he discovers a hidden tunnel that runs underneath the Wall and through to the other side, his inquisitiveness gets the better of him. And what happens when he emerges on the other side will not only re-align his world, but set into motion a series of terrible consequences.

After he goes through the tunnel and gets a glimpse of the other side – even though it’s a terrifying experience for him – his perfect, newly built town, with it’s identical houses and clean streets, seems unreal to him, like a dream, after the vibrancy and dirt and muddle and emotional tensions of the other side. He starts to wonder: why are they the enemy? Why do they hate his side of the wall? And he makes a friend, to whom he feels a debt of gratitude, though every attempt to repay it seems to make things progressively worse, both within his own life and within theirs. How can he fix it? How can he escape it?

The truth behind this dystopia is that it is not entirely fictional. William Sutcliffe has based his story – a fictional town, a fictional boy, a fictional series of events – on the real life, present day happenings in the West Bank. Although it is never explicitly written in The Wall, Joshua is Jewish, an Israeli, those on the other side of the Wall, Palestinian. Sutcliffe (who describes himself as a Jewish atheist)  has drawn on elements of various settlements on the West Bank to create this emotional and thought-provoking portrayal of the situation in Israel in which the Jewish settlers of the Occupied Zone are not-so-quietly condemned by his pen.

It’s an excellent book that, for someone who knows very little about the history and political situation of Israel, was extremely thought-provoking. It would have been useful if Sutcliffe had written a factual summary of the situation at the end of the book to give readers a little extra insight, though he does provide some suggested further reading.

Joshua is a well-rounded character who it’s impossible not to feel for. He makes mistakes – some of which have huge consequences – though the decisions he takes have only good intentions behind them, and it’s kind of excruciating and frustrating to watch events unfold yet be powerless to stop or change them. The willful ignorance of his mother as his stepfather Liev physically abuses Joshua is not unusual in young adult fiction yet is a poignant metaphor, perhaps, for the way in which the western world seems to stand idly by while a whole people is forced into a similar position and held there against their will.

The unerring belief of Liev (and, presumably, the majority of those living in Amarias) in their right to this piece of land reminded me strongly of the book I read just before this one: Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper, which covers the settling of America and practical genocide of the native people there. If I understand correctly, there is a historical precedent for Jewish people belonging to the land which is now called Israel? Which obviously isn’t the case for the whites going in and taking over America, yet surely today the Palestinians have as much connection to the land of the country Israel as perhaps the Israelis do, after farming it and living on it for generations.

Sutcliffe creates this feeling of history through Joshua’s own newly-discovered connection to the land after he begins caretaking an olive grove on the outskirts of Amarias:

“I sometimes think of all the people who might have drunk here. For the last few months it was perhaps only me and Leila’s father, but a hundred years, a thousand years, five thousand years, is the blink of an eye to a leaky rock. Drinking from this spring I feel myself joining a thread of people, linked together through unimaginable chasms of time, who have all knelt here, drunk here, tasted this taste, enjoyed it, been kept alive by it. If the bulldozers ever get here, that will be it. The rock will shift, the trickle will stop, the thread will snap.”

It is irrelevant to Joshua who those people were who have drunk from this spring, tended these olive trees, this soil – irrelevant whether they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim – the land connects us all together if we respect it and it will treat us well if we treat it well. The land doesn’t care who we are, and there is something beautiful in this idea. Why can’t we share it and live on it equally? Why do we have to own it and war over it and diminish others for it?

This is a very complicated history which engenders very complicated feelings. The Wall, though, takes one step towards making us think harder about what we do and how we behave. It’s a very clever idea, to create a dystopian story based on real happenings, though there is a precedent with books such as George Orwell's Animal Farm. Joshua’s actions will change him forever; what he learns, once he learns it, will be forevermore un-learnable:

“This place no longer seems how it was before we left for the Occupied Zone, because back then I barely even knew what The Zone was, and once you know something, you can never unknow it.  
“I have left Amarias, but now I realize Amarias will never leave me. I hated that place because it felt like a huge lie, but this place doesn’t feel so different.”

Poignant and sad and thought-provoking. Who is the real enemy? Liev? The world? Himself? And what sacrifices will he make to do the right thing, to help someone who needs help?

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