Friday, 28 October 2011

A Fictional Slant On Fact

Stasiland, Anna Funder's non-fiction treatment of the horrors of the East-German police state is a wonderful book, one that I've read several times.  In the many years since it was released, I've occasionally wondered where her next effort was (and what was taking so long...), so I was very happy when I learned that Funder had finally written a new book (and even more so when the kind people at Penguin Australia sent me a copy!).

Unlike Stasiland though, All That I Am is a novel, Funder's first public foray into fiction.  It relates the efforts German dissidents made between Hitler's rise to German Chancellor and the start of the Second World War to let people know what exactly was happening in Germany.  While the world preferred to allow the great dictator to slowly build up his forces, hoping that he would be satisfied with throwing his weight about in Eastern Europe, people like Ruth Wesemann, Dora Fabian and the playwright Ernst Toller, exiles in London, attempted to reveal the atrocities the Nazis were committing back in their home country.

While the emigrés' main problems are initially to do with earning money and finding a way to get their message across, their situation eventually becomes more perilous.  Even in peacetime London, the Nazis have people looking out for Germans who don't follow the party line.  As opponents of Hitler's regime begin to disappear all over Europe, the small pocket of exiles in London begin to look nervously over their shoulders...

The story is told in flashbacks by two of the major characters: Ernst Toller, a poet and playwright, is sitting in a hotel room in New York in 1939, dictating changes in his autobiography to an assistant; Ruth Becker, living in the Sydney of around a decade ago, begins to recall those turbulent years in London when she receives Toller's manuscript in the post.  In alternating chapters, flicking back and forth in time, Ruth and Toller explain how Hitler came to power, what happened when he did and the price people paid for opposing him.

While the story is told by Toller and Ruth though, it is the woman who connects them, Dora (Ruth's cousin and Toller's lover), who is arguably the central character of the novel.  She is one of the leading lights of the intellectual resistance, running risks both inside and outside Germany in an attempt to open people's eyes to the dangers ahead.  Gradually, she becomes aware of what she and her friends are up against, a total disregard for human life and the idea of democracy, shown in her treatment after being arrested in Berlin, where she realises that the law can no longer protect her:
"Dora was suddenly afraid, in her filth under the too-bright light, that it didn't matter what she said.  The point had been passed where the law could protect her.  This argument was a farce, the cat playing with the mouse for the pleasure of smelling its fear." p.142 (Penguin Hamish Hamilton, 2011)

All That I Am is certainly an entertaining book, and it deals with a fascinating period of history, one I love reading about, so I was a little disconcerted when I realised half-way through the book that I wasn't really enjoying it as much as I thought I would.  I eventually realised that one of the reasons for this was that I was subconsciously comparing it to another of my recent reads, Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper.  Next to this weighty tome, another book partly set in wartime Europe, Funder's book seemed a little lightweight, fluffy even.  While I still prefer The Street Sweeper, I think the second half of All That I Am made up for (and perhaps justified) the calmer pace of the middle section of the novel. The lack of urgency here made the events depicted later on even more striking, setting the reader up for an emotional fall.

The other issue I had with All That I Am though is one which I've already seen covered in a couple of reviews, one which is inevitable considering the author's background.  The majority of the characters are real, as is much of the action, so considering that Funder has already written a non-fiction book, it's very difficult for the reader (for this reader, at least) not to wonder if this may have been better off left as fact, rather than fiction.  Perhaps the less immediate nature of the material led to the decision to fictionalise events (Stasiland was fairly recent history, with plenty of people to interview) - it would be interesting to see (in a parallel universe...) how a non-fiction version would have turned out.

Still, don't misconstrue the musings of this blogger as advice not to read the book.  It's more an unfair comparison with Perlman's wonderful novel and Funder's own fantastic non-fiction work.  All That I Am is an interesting read, set in a fascinating period, and anyone interested in this slice of history would be well advised to give it a go.  Funder succeeds in showing us why events in the 1930s turned out as they did, and Ruth's words describe as well as any why people in Germany at the time failed to stop the agony of the Reich's innocent victims.
"Most people have no imagination.  If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so... 
... But Toller, great as he was, is not right.  It is not that people lack an imagination.  It is that they stop themselves using it.  Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing?" p.358