The Wall tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto during the second world war, from the creation of the wall that formed its perimeter to the final savage thrust of noble—if ultimately hopeless—rebellion in which the Jews finally struck back at their oppressors.
The story itself is inherently dramatic, based as it is on a true and monstrous period of history, but the most defining feature of The Wall is not the plot or the characters, but the way it is told. The entire book, from its editorial introduction to its final pages, purports to be extracts from the copious notes of Noach Levinson, a citizen of the ghetto who becomes its de facto archivist.
The opening pages, written in the style of an introduction by an outside academic, describe how the archive was found, and give us a first glimpse of Levinson through outside eyes. The remainder is structured as an assembly of different notes, with each passage marked with the date of its occurrence, the date of its recording, and the source of the material, though every word with very few exceptions is supposed to be written by Levinson.
It’s an interesting structure, giving the impression of something between an oral history and a non-fiction account, and the frequent use of dates helps situate the reader in the broader story. Occasionally notes from other “entries” are inserted as asides to add context, thereby circumventing one of the challenges of the epistolary novel, with its rigid limitations of chronology and perspective.
There are times where the format can be a bit distracting, and while I admire Hersey’s commitment, I occasionally wanted him to just write the novel in a more traditional way, with multiple POV characters undergoing experiences in real time, rather than having everything filter through Levinson’s notes. However, it’s not fair to judge a book on something it’s not, and I have to say it held my interest, and the second half moved much quicker than the first. Hersey apparently wrote a non-fiction account of Hiroshima, and given the talent for historicity he demonstrated in The Wall, I intend to check it out.