Interview: Marcello Di Cintio, Walls

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Marcello Di Cintio’s new book is exactly the kind of non-fiction I adore most. It’s ambitious, intensely personal, and uses one basic idea as the jump-off point for tackling all kinds of fascinating issues along the periphery. Walls: Travels Along the Barricades finds the Calgarian travel writer coming face to face with eight of the world’s most invasive barriers: from the U.S.-Mexico border, to autonomous cities along the Mediterranean, to the dozens upon dozens of smaller barricades that slice through Belfast.

What struck Di Cintio at the outset, though, was how primitive the concept of a wall really is.

“This flies against everything we’re supposed to think about the world: about barriers coming down, and globalization, and global culture and communications,” he says, reached by phone at the Banff Centre. “There are no real barriers to anything anymore. And yet at the same time we’re building these physical, medieval structures. I mean, what’s more medieval than a wall?”

After a second, he adds, “Maybe a moat.”

And consider this rather staggering fact: walls don’t even work. The U.S.-Mexico border, the fence separating northeast India from Bangladesh, the West Bank barrier—each of these supposed barricades lets people through constantly. Worse, they tend to cut through innocent people’s property, separate families, and turn peaceful neighbourhoods into battlegrounds. A psychiatrist in the former East Germany even coined a medical condition after the increased psychosis, schizophrenia, rage, dejection, and suicidal tendencies he saw among those who lived near the Berlin Wall: Mauerkrankheit, or wall disease.

Throwing cash at the perceived problem doesn’t help things, either. As Di Cintio notes, of the eight walls he visits, only the most rudimentary, a lonely berm in the Western Sahara, actually does what it intends to do. And its goals are modest, to say the least: “It was built to stop jeeps, and it stops jeeps.”

One of Walls’s great virtues is how keenly Di Cintio records his own observations and feelings along the way. In other words, it’s nowhere near objective, and never pretends to be. While Di Cintio does spend time on both sides of each wall, trying to understand the totality of the debate—indeed, the book is brimming with sympathetic character studies—he almost always comes down firmly in favour of one party. But given that each chapter also functions as his evidence, it’s nearly impossible to imagine this book being written successfully any other way.

In fact, that insistence on finding human stories was the main reason one publisher turned Di Cintio down, once they learned that he wasn’t going to write about the Koreas. But the thought never even entered his mind.

“The fact of the matter is there’s nobody living along the DMZ,” he says. “It’s this impressive, bizarre, creepy place, but there are no houses up against those fences. I didn’t want military lines only—dotted lines on a map. I wanted to go to places where people lived, or tried to live.”

Thankfully, New Brunswick-based Goose Lane had no such qualms. And even more publishers have come calling since the book’s release last month: Di Cintio has recently sold foreign rights in the United States and the U.K. There’s also been some tentative film interest.

I wrote at the top that Walls is a book about an abstract idea. And for the reader, that’s certainly true. But Di Cintio is quick to remind me that not everyone has the same luxury.

“When I first started writing the book, I was thinking, ‘The walls are a symbol of fear. They’re a symbol of failure, of hatred,’” he remembers. “What I learned, doing the actual travel, is they’re not a fucking symbol for those who live right against it. It’s not a symbol; it’s a concrete wall. It’s not a symbol; it’s a barbed wire fence.

“The walls are not a metaphor for something,” he adds. “They’re the thing. And that’s what I hope the book accomplishes. Let’s make this thing concrete—because it is, literally, concrete.”

Goose Lane, 288 pp., $29.95, hardcover

(profile originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, October 26, 2012)