Marlen Haushofer’s 1968 novel about a woman who suddenly finds herself to be the last human being on earth, trapped in an Austrian valley by an invisible wall, has been on my TBR for a while. Every now and then, I feel compelled to read a survival story like this one, and it came highly recommended. What a letdown, then, that I found it to be rather boring, mostly because I didn’t care for the main character.
The wall that suddenly shuts off the narrator from the rest of the world is presumably caused by a nuclear event, and it seems that everyone outside of the valley is dead. All the woman has to keep her company is a dog (Lynx), a cow (Bella), and a cat. The house she now lives in belonged to her cousin’s husband, who thankfully kept it well stocked. With hunting equipment, seed potatoes and beans, and enough matches to last several years, the woman’s immediate survival seems ensured. Very slowly, she begins to adjust to her new surroundings, discovering a way of life close to nature that has long been lost to many people. The suspense of the story comes from the constant uncertainty of what might happen—after all, a simple injury could prove potentially fatal here—and the knowledge that something will definitely happen to Lynx, her faithful and essential companion.
It is rather silly of me to criticize her decisions and roll my eyes at some of her thoughts. I have no idea how I would feel and act in her place. But I grew impatient with her disgust to hunt, since her survival depended on it, and I couldn’t believe she would waste her precious food to feed the deer during a particularly brutal cold spell in winter. I grew tired of her bouts with depression and her trouble sleeping, although I felt guilty about my lack of compassion. It also didn’t help that the story is told in flashbacks and I had trouble figuring out the timeline. I kept wondering how much time had passed, although in hindsight, I think that was done on purpose and I simply missed it. After all, in this situation, time as we measure it is not really important anymore. My confusion about some details simply prevented me from appreciating this aspect. The showdown that finally decides Lynx’ fate makes for an impactful ending, one that made the whole story more memorable for me.
In 2012, the book was made into a movie, starring Martina Gedeck as the narrator. While watching the movie did not improve my overall liking of the story, it is a movie worth watching. Parts of the story become more impressive because of the visuals; we see both the beauty and the terror of nature. In the narrator’s flashbacks, the winter forest looks beautiful, but in the present, it seems simply threatening. In the movie, the strangeness of the invisible wall is strangely satisfying, and the narrator’s first look at the outside world after it goes up is terrible and terrifying. I was much more moved watching these parts than I was reading about them. With its constant voiceover, watching the movie is very similar to listening to the audio version of the book, which I also gave a try.
Overall, I’d say if you are interested in the story, watch the movie. It is almost like reading the book, but it goes much faster.