The Wall

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Set amid the confusion of the Spanish Civil War, which was in progress at the time of its composition, “THE WALL” documents the capture, imprisonment, and eventual execution of three leftist revolutionaries through the eyes and voice of one of their number, who eventually identifies himself as Pablo Ibbieta. As Pablo recounts his experiences, the wall against which prisoners are lined up to be shot by the firing squad comes to symbolize the absolute boundary between life and death, presaging the later development of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. As Pablo prepares to die, he becomes so detached from his own life and experiences that he no longer seems alive, or even human. That Pablo survives to tell the tale at all, because of ludicrous coincidence, is one of the more skillfully managed ironies in all of modern fiction.

Notable for the economy and occasional coarseness of its language, “THE WALL” also illustrates what would become Sartre’s criteria for the evaluation of fiction written by others: The story is told, in the first person, by an “unprivileged” narrator whose narrative is limited to what he sees, feels, and remembers; the narrator, moreover, is “engaged” in a political cause, and the tale is told entirely from inside the situation being described. In the first few years after its publication, this story was hailed as an example of “authentic,” almost primitive fiction. By now, however, it is easy to detect the artifice involved in the production of such evident simplicity, and to sense the hand of the omniscient Sartre behind the words and actions of the supposedly authentic Pablo.

Notwithstanding, the story continues to survive its author, having long since outlived his own brief interest in the writing of narrative prose.