Monday, 5 December 2011

Book review: All That I Am, Anna Funder (2011)

The story begins in the later days of WWI and it concentrates on a bunch of young German socialist activists campaigning against the war despite solid community support for the war effort. After the war ends they organise, and because they are highly engaged in Germany's political sphere they soon begin a struggle against the Nazi push that will continue in some form or another for the duration of Germany's embrace of this new force for social cohesion. But first, expulsion. After the Reichstag Fire, which followed quickly on the heels of Nazi electoral victory, Hitler clamped down hard on Communist activity. Dora - the heroine of Funder's book - along with her friends on the political Left, are forced to take up residence in London. It is here that the bulk of the narrative takes place. Nazi efforts to completely shut down the Left public relations campaign lead to a series of dirty moves that place extraordinary pressure on the Leftists in London, who are furthermore forbidden by their British hosts from participating in political activities linked to their homeland. Pressure from the Nazis, on one hand, and from the British authorities, on the other, cause fractures to open up in the relationships between these people. Tragedy is the result.

Funder's novel attracted a fair bit of criticism from those in the mainstream press who took notice of it. In a sense, Funder has been hampered by the success of the creative non-fiction book that came earlier, Stasiland. Critics have been a bit tough on All That I am - a novel based on historical records - because, it seems, it is not the same as the triumph that came before it, which is a shame. All That I Am deftly uses novelistic techniques - there are long passages of descriptive prose of a high calibre that serve to generate atmosphere and push the story forward - just as Stasiland deftly used the insertion of the author into the narrative to say something about East Germany that otherwise could not be said. Both are high quality works, though each is different from the other.

The story of Dora and her friends is most definitely worth telling. It is a forgotten slice of the Nazi tale, a tale we have come to recognise in its main features. It is the story of how a small group of dedicated idealists tried to warn Britan - and the West - about the war aspirations of the Nazis. It shows us, furthermore, that these aspirations had their roots in WWI and the humiliation that that turned out to be for the German people. The desire for victory and power that the Nazis and their supporters took from their forefathers attained a dangerous form once political power had finally been granted to Hitler. The Leftists tried to talk about this push but were ignored by a timid British government. Squeezed between this obliquy and the dogged espionage driven from Berlin, the Leftists imploded. Some went to the US. One, Ruth, ended up in Bondi Junction.

In Sydney's peaceful eastern suburbs, Ruth is introduced as an old woman living alone. She had been married to Hans, a handsome member of the group that was forced to flee to London, but he is gone. Funder picks up on this real woman and takes her stories as the launching pad for the novel. There are many stories about the Nazi movement, so that we think we know it well. By adding Ruth's story into the mix, Funder has shown that there are still valuable lessons to be learned. The result of reading the book may be the same - fascism is a Bad Thing - but by taking in the lineaments of this personal history we see how every story attached to the myth has to have the same outcome when married to our better judgement. There are millions of stories aligned to these myths, but there is only one possible assessment. Never again.

Funder's novel cements her place as a sort of expert on German history in the 20th century. It should also force us to believe that it is possible for a non-fiction writer to turn novelist. Mailer and Capote did it, after all. This, like theirs, is a fine work, not only because it tells an interesting story. But also because it tells it well.

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