Set during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, “The Wall” sets forth the predicament of three men who are taken prisoner without warning or explanation by Falangist forces operating under General Francisco Franco; the story is narrated in the first person by Pablo Ibbieta, an erstwhile political activist who considers himself the most lucid of the trio, no doubt with good reason.
After a summary interrogation, the three captives are sentenced to death by firing squad. As they begin to confront their fate, Pablo finds himself increasingly preoccupied with the reactions of his fellow prisoners, implicitly comparing their behavior to his own. Tom Steinbock, a former comrade-in-arms, betrays his nervousness by talking too much; the third man, hardly more than a boy, is one Juan Mirbal, who repeatedly protests his innocence, claiming that the Falangists have mistaken him for an anarchist brother.
Throughout the long night preceding their planned execution at sunrise, the three men continue to respond in different manners as a Belgian doctor, ostensibly sent in to comfort them, records their behavior with a clinically observant eye. Pablo, meanwhile, is watching also, observing the doctor. Gradually it occurs to Pablo that the physician, not affected by the death sentence that hangs over the prisoners, in fact belongs to a different order of being; unlike them, he is sensitive to cold, and to hunger, no doubt because he can look forward to “tomorrow.” The captives, slowly but surely, are losing touch with their bodies, with a loss of control that goes well beyond simple fear. Pablo, in moments of total recall, revisits the small pleasures of his life and political career, only to note that such moments are not utterly devalued by the immediacy of his death: “I had understood nothing. I missed nothing: there were so many things I could have missed, the taste of manzanilla or the baths I took in summer in a little creek near Cadiz; but death had disenchanted everything.”
Reminded by Tom of his mistress Concha, whom he had once mentioned to Tom in a rare moment of weakness, Pablo reflects with some amazement that he no longer misses Concha, either: “When she looked at me something passed from her to me. But I knew it was over: if she looked at me now the look would stay in her eyes, it wouldn’t reach me. I was alone.” In Pablo’s current state, even the wild fantasy of a reprieve leaves him strangely cold; as he explains, “several hours or several years is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal.”
Toward dawn, Tom and Juan are led from the cell to be shot; Pablo, however, is detained for further questioning concerning the activities and whereabouts of the anarchist Ramon Gris, of which he had previously denied any knowledge. Although he no longer values Gris’s life any more than he does his own, Pablo will still refuse to divulge what he knows, if only out of stubbornness. Finally, overwhelmed by the apparent absurdity of his captors’ fancy uniforms and self-important airs, Pablo tells an elaborate lie about Gris’s supposed whereabouts: As he spins his improbable tale of Gris hiding in a nearby cemetery, he imagines the stuffy, beribboned officers running about among the graves, lifting up tombstones, and the look on their faces when they perceive that the prisoner has tricked them.
The officers have been gone for no more than half an hour when one of them returns, ordering Pablo to be turned loose among the other prisoners, those still awaiting sentence. It is from one of the latter,...
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a baker named Garcia who has “had nothing to do with politics,” that Pablo will learn the truth: Ramon Gris, improbably, had taken refuge in the cemetery after an argument with the cousin who had been hiding him; unable to seek refuge with Pablo because of the latter’s arrest, he could think of no place else to go. The Falangists, reports Garcia, found Gris hiding in the gravediggers’ shack, and when he shot at them they killed him with return fire. As the news begins to sink in, Pablo collapses to the ground in a fit of helpless laughter.