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: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder