Walls by Marcello Di Cintio: Constructions of brick and steel which divide people are not only enduring, but thriving

Berlin, Belfast, Nicosia and the West Bank - Marcello Di Cintio's historical tour of tangible divisions across the globe makes for pessimistic reading.

Walls: Travels Along the Barricades
Marcello Di Cintio
Union Books, 288pp, £14.99
 
In Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, there is a small display of Wall fragments. Next to this are panels showing the erection of the “Anti- Fascist Protection Rampart” in 1961. On one of them, at one point, was graffiti across the East/West Berlin border, with “USA” and “Mexico” written on each side. That scribble does not feature in Marcello Di Cintio’s Walls but it may as well have. This travel book is an exploration of the surviving walls that mark borders and bifurcate urban areas all over the world. The Berlin Wall is hardly mentioned because it no longer exists – but it was also, Di Cintio writes, deeply unusual as walls go. Despite its name, it was built to keep people in. Those built to keep people out – of Spain, of the US, of Israel, of the Short Strand – have proven considerably more enduring.
 
Timely as the book is, there are absences. No gated communities are included, although Di Cintio is sharp on the various euphemisms – gates, fences, “peace lines” – used to make walls sound like something other than walls. His book has a wide geographical sweep. Beginning with the walls built by Morocco to control insurgents in the Western Sahara, it takes in the West Bank wall, the fortifi - cations built recently along the border between India and Bangladesh and, in a final and welcome surprise, the barrier in his native Canada that divides the “garden city” of Mount Royal and the working-class district of Parc-Extension in Montreal – erected in the 1950s and still standing.
 
The most penetrating chapters are those either on walls that bisect small areas – such as Belfast or Nicosia in Cyprus – or on those that run through geopolitical fault lines, as in Israel/Palestine, the US/Mexico and Spain/ Morocco, where the first and third worlds rub up against each other.
 
Along with the geographical sweep come all the conventions of travel writing. Like most genres, travel writing is an acquired taste, a peculiarly middle-class genre in which authors describe at length the smells, tastes and picturesque customs of a given area and very seldom bother to explain how they managed to get to the place they’re writing about or how they came to know these eloquent people from all walks of life. As writers in this mode go, Di Cintio is very good – honest, sharp, nuanced and vivid – but it’s hard not to be constantly distracted by apparently irrelevant questions such as: “How do you just go to Western Sahara and hang out with guerrillas in tents in the desert? Do you just turn up? Was it just luck that your two guides in Belfast turned out to be ex-members of the IRA and UDA?” It’s not that I doubt his veracity but that he seems able to teleport between places.
 
This approach has its virtues – the descriptions of landscape and townscape are acute, whether they are his vivid renderings of the deserts in the Western Sahara and Arizona (he keeps his eyes open, because the sand doesn’t scrape your eyes as sharply that way) or his accounts of the baroque streets of Ceuta and Melilla on the Spanish-Moroccan border or the tiny enclaves and exclaves that make up residential Belfast.
 
His sympathies are with the oppressed and he mostly avoids sentimentality. He is angry but unprejudiced in the West Bank; he notes the huge death rates of immigrants trying to walk through the sliver of unwalled land on the US-Mexico border; and he recounts some painful stories told to him by those trying to escape to Spain and hence Europe through Ceuta. The historical asides are unobtrusive and erudite, particularly in reminding us how much the British empire’s careless partitions of Ireland and India have created intractable problems. Yet all of this entails enjoyment of passages such as his description of how, wandering near the Bangladesh-India border in Bengal, he drinks some Assam tea and realises: “I’d never drunk fresh tea before. Compared to this vegetal richness, the tea that emerges from the dry bags I soak in Canada tastes like iron filings.” And how, while rioters in Palestine have grace, those in Belfast are lumpen.
 
All of this is part of the genre. If you want an account of these proliferating new borders and architectures of security, seek out Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege and Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, which provide more detail, more context, more analysis and more strategies for fighting the barriers.
 
What is memorable in Walls is its deep pessimism. Whenever a dismantlement appears to be imminent, as in Nicosia, inertia and cynicism invariably win out over the let’s-allhold- hands anti-politics of the UN and the NGOs. In Belfast, Di Cintio notes the removal of the “peace line” that once divided a park in Ardoyne but considers the underground wall that runs between the Catholic and Protestant sections of the Belfast City Cemetery to be “a more relevant symbol than the image of little girls frolicking through a gate that opens every once in a while”. The constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people are not only enduring but thriving.
 
Owen Hatherley’s most recent book is “A New Kind of Bleak” (Verso, £12.99)
The Belfast "Peace Wall" which divides Republican and Loyalist neighborhoods in West Belfast. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear