All That I Am – Anna Funder
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
Published 15th Sept 2011
History is often best told not by lists of battle dates but by the people in the shadows; those whose lives were blighted by the dictators. Anna Funder has already shown exceptional gifts at this peripheral style – her book Stasiland won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2004 and related tales of ordinary lives from behind the Berlin Wall. Now, her astonishingly accomplished first novel relates the stories of Germans forced to flee their country when Hitler rose to power as Chancellor in 1933, and started instigating the policies that would lead to one of the most devastating mass murders in history.
Funder has bravely chosen to entwine fiction with fact, following the lives of real life interlinked émigrés who fought Nazism intellectually: Ernst Toller, the eminent playwright, Dora Fabian, the campaigner, and Ruth Becker, a woman who Funder herself befriended in Australia, and whose story inspired this novel. Those who quibble that fictionalising fact is a travesty strike this reviewer as being pedantic and petty: Funder’s imagination has been employed to form lives from known fragments - usually their writing, or newpaper coverage of their lives - into a cohesive whole. She has no need for fiction to sensationalise the story – that chilling factor is provided by the truth.
The novel is related in first person accounts by Ruth, in contemporary Australia, where she is an old woman, and by Toller, set in New York in 1939, where he has sought refuge. The two are linked by Ruth’s cousin Dora, who they both loved. Toller is dictating the last of his autobiography (in real life he penned I Was a German) to a secretary Clara, who bears a painful resemblance to his beloved Dora. Their recollections are knitted to form the horrific tale of Germany’s descent into war in 1939.
Funder’s research is painstaking, yet she wears it without flourish, integrating it all into the lives of her characters. Toller fought in the first World War – at that time, the Kaiser insisted religion was irrelevant, and all should unite to fight for their country. He suffered physical and mental wounds which sparked his writing career. Imprisoned in 1919 after the short-lived Munich revolution, he refused freedom unless his fellow political prisoners were also freed. When Hitler came to power, he was exiled, and worked against the Nazis from Europe and America. But despite being saved from Germany’s demon, his own would continue to plague him. Dora and Ruth both also served time in prison but continued their activist work. All were members of the Independent party, an offshoot of the Social Democrats, which later became the Socialist Workers’ Party.
Funder’s novel is rich in scope, and the characters are vividly alive. The era is evoked in compelling detail, whether it’s Weimar Germany, with its hyper-inflation (women wheelbarrowing notes to buy a loaf; a coffee costing more by the minute) and its decadent nightclubs, or the atmosphere of 1930s London, where German refugees were allowed asylum only on condition that they refrained from any political activity – a frustrating constraint as they tried to warn the world about Hitler’ amassing of weapons and plans for war. Funder’s cultural reach is impressive – Ruth and her husband visit a fair where a pigeon-chested man and a black woman are attractions, a scene straight out of a Christian Schad painting. Toller’s friends include WH Auden, who translated some of his work, and the satirical artist George Grosz.
Relatively insignificant, little-known facts sometimes have more impact than greater ones, to which the brain can become immune on repeated exposure. Learning that Ruth’s father was not allowed to study law because he was a Jew – way before even the Great War -, or that during the latter, severely disfigured soldiers were kept in secret military hospitals to prevent lowering morale and war support, say much about the dysfunction of those in power two decades before WW2. But of course, major events feature too – the burning of the Reichstag and the persecution and murder of thousands of innocent people that followed it; the formation of concentration camps to accommodate all the political prisoners (95% in the camps were political prisoners in the mid ‘30s), and finally, the devastating persecution of Jews and plundering of their assets.
But Funder’s novel is far more than the ‘reconstruction from fossil fragments’ and ‘drawing skin and feathers over...bones’ that she modestly admits to in her afterword. The text is littered not only with Toller’s heartbreakingly wise insights, but also Funder’s own perceptive gnomic insights, casually dropped in and causing the equivalent of a neck-swivel on the street – what was that? Wow. When she tells us the cruelty of a child is shameful to the child because ‘the deviation from motherliness is abnormal, something to be hidden’, she captures a truth that many have silently acknowledged. Similarly, when she has Toller suggest that ‘so much of love is curiosity, a search in the other for some little piece of self’, a breeze of recognition shivered through this reader.
Everything in this book radiates humanity, from the way a racist minor character shows she is capable of kindness, through the gradual acceptance of cultural differences between the polished politesse of the Brits and the unburnished honesty of the refugees, to the heart-wrenching and true fates of the major figures. Read it.