A Cheetah in Book Form
Max Annas is a German journalist who lived for a time in East London, a coastal city in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. His US debut, The Wall, is a satire with some hilarious parts, but also the action of a thriller. Despite the humor and his light touch, Annas shows us a pessimistic view of the modern culture in South Africa.
Berlin-based newspaper Die Welt said of the German original, “The Wall is a fantastic, yet very funny novel…Fast, hard and dangerous. A cheetah in book form.” The book went on to win the German Crime Fiction Prize in 2017.
In it, Moses is looking forward to an afternoon with his girlfriend when his car breaks down outside The Pines, a guarded enclave. In search of a vague acquaintance he hopes will help him, he sneaks into the walled estate, hoping to remember the address once inside. But the local security guards see him as a threat—for no other reason than that he’s a young, black male, and dressed in work clothes. After an initial altercation, he runs—eventually for his life—but he’s trapped by the walls around the suburb like a rat in a maze. Finally, the guards are reinforced by police, and an intense manhunt follows with shocking consequences.
In this interview for The Big Thrill, Annas provides insight on what motivated him to write The Wall and what we can look forward to from him next.
You lived for some time in East London. What brought you there, and what experiences shaped your novel The Wall?
I moved to South Africa in 2008 for personal reasons. The Wall is mainly the result of watching people living their lives. But there is one episode that might have helped getting to write the book. I did an architectural tour through East London with some friends, and one of them was from Cameroon. While standing in front of a small former railroad worker’s house he said: “I would love to go beyond the wall and have a closer look.” And a guy who grew up in East London simply commented: “Yeah, you do that and they shoot at you immediately.”
The Wall holds up a mirror to the relations between black and white, wealthy and poor, in modern South Africa. It has amusing moments, but the message is somber. Was this your aim in writing the book?
It is about being in and not. Talking about walls has become quite popular in certain regions of the world. And in others, they were never gone. Look at the wealthier parts of South African cities and how they are dominated by walls—by massive elements trying to recreate the “apart” that defined the old system. Looking at the political discourses in Europe, I guess the novel also can be read as a statement on borders and border regimes.
Moses is a Kafkaesque character. Although he never finds his acquaintance, he does eventually find a black household he hopes will understand—but even there he finds no help. The maids and gardeners sympathize, but have no power in the walled-off community. He is completely alone, and his own attitudes start to change. Would you comment?
I just reversed the more conventional image of the young black male body being the nightmare of the white community—and believe me, because of the color of my own skin, I have had white people complain to me a million times about black people just being around, just being there. So the nightmare experience here is the young black male’s, him being trapped in a mostly white community, and trying desperately to get out. It is his nightmare now, and a very simple idea actually.
I enjoyed the husband and wife burglary team, Thembinkosi and Nozipho. They actually are up to no good, working their way through the houses and collecting money, jewelry, and other valuables. They are quite different from the stereotypical violent South African thug. All goes well until they find a murdered woman in a chest freezer. After that, they spend much of their time hiding in a cupboard (and in the above mentioned freezer) as the house’s residents, the murderers, go about their business. How did you conceive these two?
I wanted a counter-narrative to Moses and his running. Thembinkosi and Nozipho fulfilled everything Moses did not. They were together and could talk with each other, they were inside of a house instead of on the street, and finally they were even hidden in a very tight space. What I like about them is that they represent an aspect of redistribution, which is normally not looked at in South Africa. Many people in South Africa are struggling, and a lot of them talk about those who have and those who don’t. In The Wall, Thembinkosi and Nozipho transformed their talking into action.
The hunt for Moses eventually escalates out of all proportion. The thieves and murderers incorrectly believe they are the targets, culminating in a violent climax. As one character says while viewing the devastation, “They started it.” Were you aiming to show just how easy it is to shatter the veneer of peace and release all the animosities and frustrations?
I don’t want to give away too much of what you are calling the climax of the book. But in times of conflict—and here we have one that is threatening the lives of nearly all characters involved—people in South Africa tend to shape their actions regarding to race. That is what I am writing about, about the logic and also about the absurdity within it.
Do you plan to write any other stories set in South Africa, and what is your next project?
There are two more novels set in South Africa, one of which is The Farm, which, in Germany, was published before The Wall. After moving to Berlin, I started writing on Germany because I thought living in Germany and writing in German meant having to look at the country of my origin with my work. At the moment I am writing the second book in a series set in the former German Democratic Republic. These books are again thrillers with a cop from a provincial murder investigation squad as the protagonist. These books are set in the 1980s.