Like many writers and thinkers drawn to the political Left, Jean-Paul Sartre tended to see most existing literature, especially that of the nineteenth century, as part of a capitalist plot to maintain and perpetuate the prevailing social order. In terms that he would soon define as he proceeded to elaborate his philosophy of existentialism, most literature was “inauthentic,” offering a false portrayal of life based on lies, or at least on false assumptions. No author, he claimed, could possibly presume to “understand” his characters or to attribute motivation to behavior portrayed. “The Wall,” written during—and about—the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, was conceived at least in part as an illustration of Sartre’s developing theories, showing behavior “in situation,” recounted in the first person by a far from “omniscient” narrator who is himself a major participant in the action portrayed.
Pablo Ibbieta, arrested by General Franco’s Nazi-supported Falangist forces, tells only what he sees and feels, little mindful of cause and effect. Although no doubt an educated man, an informed political activist on the Republican side, Pablo has plausibly been reduced by his recent experiences to a kind of automaton, responding quickly and unreflectively to such external stimuli as light and darkness, heat and cold. His narrative begins with the start of his captivity, when he is pushed into a makeshift holding cell with two other prisoners. After cursory interrogation, the three are sentenced to death at sunrise, with a Belgian physician assigned to watch over them during their final hours. The stage is thus set—and it is useful here to remember that Sartre would soon hit his true stride as a playwright—for a conflict of wills and aspirations that is truly dramatic in structure and tone. Pablo, a stereotypical if quite plausible Hispanic male in whom the “macho” ideal is ingrained, determined to be a “tough guy” to the bitter end, will observe and judge both captors and fellow captives in accordance with that standard and will predictably find them wanting.
Imprisoned along with Pablo are Tom Steinbock (oddly identified as Irish within the text despite his Germanic surname) and Juan Mirbal, an effeminate youngster who repeatedly asserts his innocence, claiming that he has been mistaken for an anarchist brother. Tom, perhaps in fact an American or Canadian attracted to the Republican cause, tends to talk too much, at least to Pablo’s way of thinking, which also judges Juan Mirbal as a whiner. Pablo’s evident attitude is that, when death is inevitable, one must face it with whatever dignity remains.
The Belgian doctor, who is soon identified by Pablo with the enemy, is sent in to record with scientific precision—as did the Nazis—the behavior and reactions of men getting ready to die. He serves within the story as an object-lesson among the “living,” those not condemned to death who can still feel cold, heat, pain and, in short, “think about tomorrow.” The doomed men, by contrast, soon lose touch with their surroundings as well as with their bodies and bodily functions; Pablo, who considers himself, perhaps not without reason, as the most lucid of the trio, looks on with mounting indignation, bordering upon disgust, as his fellow prisoners unconsciously succumb to the fear of death while he, Pablo, strains his resources to the limit in order to remain “tough.” Quickly revisiting his life and loves as a potential suicide might see his past flash before him as he jumps from a bridge, Pablo Ibbieta concludes that only the illusion of immortality could lend meaning to life and that human aspirations add up to a “damned lie.” Even Pablo’s latest girlfriend, Concha, falls victim to the nihilism that invades his person as he faces death; he is now sure that he would find Concha’s flesh quite as repulsive as he now finds his own and that their eyes could never meet again.
At dawn, as his cellmates are led off to death by firing squad within plain earshot, Pablo himself is detained for further questioning concerning the whereabouts of the agitator Ramon Gris, whom he allegedly harbored under his own roof before being arrested. Having sensed the absurdity of the entire situation, Pablo Ibbieta indulges himself in a final joke, sending his pompous, beribboned captors off to the local cemetery, where he claims Gris might well be hiding. Nothing, as Pablo well knows, could be further from the truth, nor does he still harbor any loyalty toward Gris or even to “the cause,” all of which died in him at the same time as his feelings toward Concha. All he cares about now is the ridiculous parade of the self-absorbed officers through the deserted graveyard, imagining the look on their faces when they figure out that they have been “had.”
The officers have been gone no longer than a half-hour when Pablo is suddenly and unexpectedly turned loose among newly arrested prisoners still awaiting sentence. It is one of the latter, the apolitical baker Garcia, who explains to Pablo what has happened: Ramon Gris, unable to seek refuge with Pablo after Pablo’s arrest, had in fact been hiding out in the cemetery, in the grave diggers’ shack, and was killed by return fire after shooting at the Falangists sent—by Pablo—to look for him. As the truth begins to sink in, Pablo sinks to the ground in a fit of helpless laughter.
The image of the wall, literally the wall against which prisoners stand when shot by a firing squad, serves to represent the boundary separating life from death. The tone of Pablo’s narrative indicates that he has been quite as good as dead from the moment that he grasped the fact of his own mortality. He has, so to speak, passed through the wall to the nothingness beyond it, quite unable to pick up where he left off, and although he has somehow survived to tell the tale, his life might as well have ended. Arguably, readers of a later generation, aware of Sartre’s sustained interest in psychology, might well see in Pablo’s disorientation an early literary example of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but the author’s intentions here reach well beyond the topical and clinical toward the timeless and universal, evoking humankind’s inability to accept the finality of death, especially violent death resulting from war.
Like many of Sartre’s later characters, especially in the plays that would follow, and complete, the philosophical statement set forth in Being and Nothingness, Pablo has learned, or believes himself to have learned, that aspirations count for nothing and that life is nothing more than the total of acts completed at the time of death, leaving little for posterity.
Limited to—and by—the consciousness of Pablo as narrator, told in a colloquial, even “earthy” style with certain words no doubt appearing in print for the first time, “The Wall” breaks sharply with the omniscient, “bourgeois” literary tradition that Sartre had come to distrust and detest. Except for...
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