John Lanchester on walls, Brexit, Trump, climate change and his latest novel

Lanchester argues that Trump is about '5,000 years out' when talking about walls as medieval

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Nick Cunard/REX/Shutterstock (4710471bk)
John Lanchester
5 x 15 event at The Tabernacle, London, Britain - 20 Apr 2015
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"It's an expression of that thing; that as you get older, you look out the window at the world around you and don't recognise it any more. There's always been an ­element of that for everybody, everywhere. But maybe it's more intense now. People look at the world around them and there are more ­people who are not like them."

So says John Lanchester, 56, an award-winning author of five novels, including Capital and The Debt to ­Pleasure, and a diverse range of non-­fiction – food criticism, memoirs and zingy books about ­economics. Lanchester is responding to questions raised by his superb new novel, The Wall.

The story, at once thrilling, philosophical and political, is narrated by Joseph Kavanaugh – Joseph K for short, in a nod to Franz Kafka. Joseph has been conscripted as a "Defender", one of thousands of young British people ordered to patrol a 10,000-mile wall that encircles their island. Inside the ­perimeter are terrified citizens; on the outside are the "Others", an unspecified enemy who do the ­terrifying. Or, at least, that is what ­Joseph has been told.

The Wall's title and ­premise inspire two lines of ­enquiry early on. What exactly is the wall ­defending the citizens from? And what are those inside its ­perimeter so ­frightened of? Talking at his ­publisher's offices in ­London, Lanchester ­responds with that opening statement: people nowadays being afraid of a world they no longer recognise.

Does he share those fears? "I absolutely don't," Lanchester says firmly.
"I accept that not everyone is emotionally wired that way. A lot of people have the exact opposite feeling about ­immigration. For me, it goes quite deep."

The entire planet, it seems, is uniting to help Lanchester promote The Wall. Immigration, ­globalisation, Brexit, Trump, a mounting refugee crisis, environmental collapse – you name it, it informs Lanchester's dystopian fable. Indeed, our ­conversation takes place as various crises reach boiling point. One ­obvious example is taking place close to Lanchester's London home: the British government's ­calamitous withdrawal from the European Union. Lanchester has looked on with disbelief. "It's been two and a half years! Nothing's happened. That is genuinely strange," he says.

The Wall by John Lanchester. Courtesy Faber

Another ongoing ­political saga is United States ­President Donald Trump's willingness to hold America's federal government hostage over funding for his own, much-vaunted border barrier. "Because America is a country built by immigrants, Trump's wall does actually challenge the whole idea of what America is," says Lanchester, who, ­unsurprisingly, is not a fan.

"Trump said this tremendous thing about wheels and walls: 'They really are medieval,' he said. Which is hilariously wrong. He is ­literally 5,000 years out." 

Nevertheless, Lanchester grudgingly accepts the ­effectiveness of Trump's ­medieval imagery. "[Trump] has that ­ability to think laterally and in ­tabloid terms," he says. ­"People understand the image of a wall. They get it, completely and fully."

These headline-grabbers may provide unavoidable contexts in which to read The Wall, but neither Trump nor Brexit were at the forefront of Lanchester's mind during its composition. If anything, he drew from his life and protean identity. "I present as fully British. I am ­British. But, ­actually, it's more ­complicated than you might think."

Born in Germany to Anglo-­Irish parents, Lanchester was educated in England, but spent his formative years in Hong Kong. "It wasn't a thing that was talked about a lot, but it was there, that Hong Kong was built by ­refugees," he says.

epa07329947 Pro and Anti EU campaigners rally outside of the Parliament in London, Britain, 29 January 2019. The House of Commons is set to vote on amendments to British Prime Minister May's Brexit plan in parliament on 29 January.  EPA/WILL OLIVER

One thing Hong Kong taught Lanchester was the fine line that separates safe harbours from dangerous areas, the places people are desperate enough to flee from and those that they aspire to live in. In this, the current vogue for building walls – at least on the Texan-­Mexican border – is a ­simplistic response to a ­profoundly complex issue.

"Walls are very often about defining who you are," says Lanchester. "Almost all cultures have the same concept of barbarians. That is part of the way I imagined it in the book. The wall is there for practical reasons, but it is a very complete way of defining who the 'Others' are. All you need to know about them is that they are on the other side."

Joseph K's problem in The Wall is that he is neither the "Other", nor a citizen being "Defended". Lanchester ­describes his position on top of the wall as liminal – a threshold between one supposedly defined space and ­another. This could just as easily describe Lanchester himself. Both his life and work defy easy ­categorisation – never more so than in this novel. "I am very insistently asked to put it on a ­specific shelf," he says. "Is it an ­allegory? Is it a dystopia? Is it a metaphor? Is it a parable?"

Aptly, and perhaps ­inevitably, Lanchester sits on the fence about this ­uncertainty. In fact he seems unsure if there is even a fence at all. "Writing is a way of not being where you are, quite," he says. "Absence is very important in writing. It is one of the odd things about the modern appetite for ­readings and festivals and meeting writers in person. Writers, by definition, are ­people who prefer being ­absent. If you liked being there and commanding the terrain, you don't become a writer."

Lanchester says he is not disavowing his fiction, merely distinguishing the John Lanchester that loses ­himself in his novels from the ­"social being" who turns up for interviews. "It is slightly like being the straight man who is packed off to answer the questions," he says with a laugh.

FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2019 file photo, a woman walks on the beach next to the border wall topped with razor wire in Tijuana, Mexico. What started as an online fundraiser to provide President Donald Trump with donations for his southern border wall has morphed into a new foundation whose members vow to build a wall themselves.  The "We The People Will Build the Wall" campaign has surpassed $20 million since it was created in December by Air Force veteran and triple amputee Brian Kolfage. The campaign has received almost 350,000 donations even as wall opponents derided the effort and after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ended with Congress refusing Trump's demand for billions in wall funding.  (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

How do both John Lanchesters view the ­future imagined by his book? "One thing that happens with books like this, set in a dark version of an imaginary future, is the intention to prevent that future from happening," he says.

The future that Lanchester sees most ­clearly concerns the spectre of irreversible climate change. "We can still avoid it," he says, citing the International Panel on Climate Change, which ­believes that global warming can be limited to 1.5°C

"We have already had one degree, but [this forecast] shows a ­dramatically different map of the world. Hundreds of millions of lives saved, or saved from a horrible impact. Just the difference between 1.5 ­degrees and two, which is the target of the Paris Agreement."

Given Trump's withdrawal from the process, is such ­action feasible? Lanchester says we have no choice. "This is a last moment. Collective action on a global scale. We can still halt it at that level. The seas would get warmer for centuries, which is a frightening thought in itself, but it would, in effect, be saving the world."

And who, at the end of the day, doesn’t want that?

The Wall by John Lanchester is out now, published by Faber