All That I Am
Rs 550 pp 370
Australian writer Anna Funder is new to the novel. All That I Am is her debut effort, a story revolving around the experiences of a group of leftist political activists in Germany in the years leading up to the rise of Adolf Hitler, and their continued exertions later as exiles to warn the world, even in the face of grave personal danger, of the malignant danger posed by Nazi rule.
Twentieth century German history and the form of the novel had almost come together, though, when Funder had started working on her first book, Stasiland. A story - or case-studies to be more accurate - of individuals whose lives were cleft apart by the workings of the Stasi, the East German secret police, Funder found that the material amassed by her reportage, "outstripped the credibility" of the form.
"The novel is like a big fancy car for the writer to show off in," said Funder, in Thiruvananthapuram where she was attending the Alchemist Hay Festival last month, far removed in time and space from the lives of those former East Germans for whom the "Cold War was a schism that ran through their lives". "I wanted to convey that it was true that seemingly ordinary people did those extraordinary things." East Germany was the perfect surveillance State, Funder wrote in Stasiland, where the secret police would break into your house, steal your dirty underwear and bottle it to have a sample of your body odour to train a dog to track you. "These things were so extreme that it wouldn't be doing justice to the people who were still alive to write it as fiction," she said.
All That I Am, in that sense, allows Funder more room for the imagination to play. If the inspiration for Stasiland had been set in motion by the writers and artists exiled from East Germany she had met as a student in West Berlin in 1987, All That I Am tells the story of the real-life Ruth Blatt (Ruth Wesemann, nee Becker, in the novel), who was Funder's German teacher in Melbourne. Through Ruth, Funder learnt about the activities of the members of the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany, their role in organising a brave resistance to combat the evil that the Nazis represented, and about their stalwarts like playwright-intellectual Ernst Toller and the relatively unknown Dora Fabian. And yet there were gaps in that narrative that recorded history was not able to address, and it was in "the gap between what is known and what I imagined could have happened that the novel took shape," Funder explains.
Funder's language, freed from the rigorous discipline required in a work of non-fiction, exhibits enough power and graceful ease that will make a reader eagerly await her future works (another novel is in the offing, though set in contemporary times, marking a break with German history). Her narration is taut, yet sympathetic, providing instances of a perfect union of emotional insight and historical accuracy. The structure - parallel, multiple narratives that move back and forth in time - may seem somewhat forced at times though, an area where Funder might have to expend some energy as she grows as a novelist.
Both Stasiland and All That I Am, at the end of the day, deal with the "political use of fear", Funder points out. The human drama of suspicion, hostility and betrayal is fed by that fear. "The dynamics of both books apply at any place, at any time," she says. Does the story of those who spy on others or are spied upon resonate with our times? "We always have to be alert about the rights of individuals, whether against the state or against corporations accumulating information [such] dangers are structural and power, if unchecked, can be used in ways that an individual wouldn't like."