All that I am
Viking London, 2011
Price: 16.99 pounds
Stasiland, Anna Funder’s first book, was equal parts reportage and narration. It took readers into the surreal, unheimlich world of the East German secret police, the dreaded Stasi, and was populated by stories of ordinary people – and in fact, the Stasi staffers themselves – who lived through the former German Democratic Republic, a historical period during which Germany suffered what was basically the trauma of totalitarianism. All That I Am, which is Funder’s first fictional work, is more or less a similar tale, albeit with a thin skein of narrative disguise.
The real-life characters of Ruth Blatt and her childhood friend Dora Fabian inspire this novel about a group of well-educated German dissidents during the years in which Hitler rises to power. Forced to flee Germany for their resistance to Nazi ideology, and finding their world of culture and self-expression collapsing in the face of a brutally efficient regime, these dissidents escape to London. But physical escape is insufficient and as the group licks its collective wounds it finds that treachery and betrayal have not been left behind. As their new hiding places are wracked by violence and the web of friendship and affection that kept them safe is snapped strand by strand, Blatt somehow manages to survive the depredations of the Gestapo.
Funder came upon this story as a student in Sydney where she met the nonagenarian Blatt, and was inspired to write about her life. The novel is a blend of creative non-fiction and historical fiction, alternating between Blatt and Ernst Toller – a playwright working on his memoirs in New York circa 1939 – who are connected by Blatt’s cousin and Toller’s lover, Fabian. It is the personalisation of this story, and of the impact that is created by a tale of personal and political morality, that makes it such a compelling read. Funder has a talent for evoking both awe and horror through her prose but where she occasionally stumbles is in subsuming her own voice into the tale itself. Blatt has an incredible story to tell but there is a curious lack of the creative spark in Funder’s recounting of it — there is technical virtuosity, but one feels that the narrative lacks soul.
There is only one part of All That I Am that is actually clunky, and that is Funder’s fairly evident desire to highlight the female “stars” of her tale. Her intent (and it is a positive one) to bring these women’s stories to light is commendable but she struggles to walk the fine line between commemoration and fetishisation. That said, much of what Funder writes about remains relevant even today: governments that carry out acts of terror, nationalism that trumps humanity, demonisation and bigotry and, of course, the alienation caused by fear-mongering (draw your own analogies here).
There are moments of dissonance of course: in today’s media-heavy, globalised world one finds it occasionally awkward to read about massive governmental cover-ups — they’re hard to imagine, in a reality shaped by Julian Assange. Funder avoids flogging the dead horse of analogy but manages to raise a compelling – if discomfiting – issue of memory.
The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933–1939 by Zara Steiner, 2011
In this historical treatise, Steiner begins with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany following historical events leading the world into war, ranging far and wide from the American Great Depression to Hitler’s own ambitions.
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, 2011
Edugyan’s novel follows the lives of a group of jazz musicians trapped in the throes of World War II as the Axis forces surge through Berlin and, later, Paris.
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder, 2004
A recounting of the influence that the Stasi had on the defunct German Democratic Republic, this is a wonderful dual narrative of Funder’s own experiences.