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In 'Stasiland' Australian author Anna Funder presented a picture of life in East Germany using interviews with people whose lives had come into contact with the state police. Her latest work 'All That I Am' is a fictional work based on a number of actual events and real people and is set for the most part in London in the years immediately after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany.
At the heart of the story are Ruth and her husband Hans Wesemann, Ruth's cousin Dora Fabian and the writer Ernst Toller. Along with other many other Germans, like Ruth and Dora, some but not all Jewish, they were forced out of their homeland because of their membership of the Communist party. In England they must live as best they can in a strange country where they are refugees but they are not allowed to speak of their reasons for being refugees. Ruth and Hans are the first to arrive in London and from an attic flat they secretly try to carry on the work they started in Germany to remove the Nazis but with no way of really knowing what's happening there they face a difficult task.
Dora follows her on-off lover Ernst to London and moves in with her cousin; fiercely political and independent, Dora isn't keen to be involved in Ruth's and Hans's efforts and refuses to share with them details of the work she is involved in though she eventually relents and gives cautious advice to the others. Dora is right to be secretive; the dissidents may have been granted asylum in Britain but that does not mean that they are protected from danger and it is well known that the Nazis have men in London whose job it is to ensure that those who have been removed from Germany are not able to get their message back into the country. But Dora, ever alert and fearful realises that there is a traitor inside the group; can the risk be neutralised and the danger averted before serious damage is done?
The story is told from an American hotel room in 1939 and from a Sydney suburb in the 1990s. In New York Ernst Toller is dictating his memoirs, a story that will never be published. In Sydney the story is narrated by Ruth as she spends her final days drifting in and out of consciousness, her memories re-kindled by a manuscript she receives of Ernst's book.
I was interested in 'All That I Am' because it looks at a group that tend not to feature in writing on Nazi Germany. There is plenty of fiction focussing on the experience of Jewish refugees in Britain prior to and during World War Two but I can't recall reading anything about the political activists. Political prisoners were the first to be sent to Germany's concentration camps, it wasn't until much later that Jews and other groups were transported. Ruth and Hans were given an opportunity to leave Germany when the Gestapo stole a membership list from the socialist party offices; that Ruth was also Jewish was at that point secondary to her expulsion and, indeed, Ruth's father, a prominent Jewish lawyer, later steps in to try to help the dissidents.
Anna Funder and Ruth Blatt (the Ruth Becker/Wesemann of the novel) met when Ruth was an old lady. The fate of the people in Funder's story can be found in history books and personal memoirs; it may not be a well known story but it's certainly not untold so I don't understand why Funder chose to fictionalise it. I can only think that by doing so she could weight the story towards the two main female characters and therefore give it more of a focus than it might otherwise have had. It is a fascinating story but one that I would have found just as interesting had it been told as a piece of non-fiction. While I found the subject matter interesting, I felt that the novel lacks creativity; there's nothing to spark the imagination so it reads very much like merely an account of the real events. Without that something to grab readers it feels rather flat and slow.
More than the telling of Dora and Ruth's story, I enjoyed the frank description of Ruth's coming to terms with the end of her life. She's alone in the world but for a rather stereotypically Australian home help who, it first appears, lets it be known that Ruth can't be trusted to look after herself (physically she can't but this doesn't allow for her incredibly sharp brain) but as the story continues we see that she cares deeply for the lady in her own 'diamond in the rough' way. Funder's portrayal of Ruth is an honest but dignified portrait of old age.
Based on the evidence here, Anna Funder is certainly capable of writing a novel but she'll have to choose her material much better if she is to really succeed. Perhaps an unwillingness to deviate from the true events, or to move from the characters as they have been introdcued to her, has led to this becoming a rather staid and slow moving novel. It certainly feels like it. I am sure that Funder would have produced a very readable account of the same events had she written it as a piece of non-fiction. I wish that she had.
"When Hitler came to power, I was in the bath".
In Sydney, Australia in the 1990s, Dora Becker receives a package, containing the writings of a long dead friend. Those writings and the memories of Dora, a German woman now in her nineties, form the narrative structure of this thought provoking novel. I have read a lot of novels and non fiction about this period recently, but All That I Am is more than just another tale about more victims and survivors of Nazism.
Anna Funder's first book, Stasiland, was a non fiction work about the former DDR (East Germany), the secret police and their victims. This time, she has drawn on true stories and used real people, but All That I Am is presented as a novel, a kind of historical, literary thriller. The characters are a group of German socialists who are forced to become refugees after Hitler's rise to power.
The novel is in the form of two alternating first person narrators, looking back on their pasts. "Ruth Becker" in the novel, really Ruth Blatt, ended up in Australia, where she lived into her mid 90s and became a friend of the author. The other narrative is by Ernst Toller, a socialist activist and writer writing his memoirs in a New York City hotel room in 1939. The other main characters in the story include Ruth's husband Hans and her cousin Dora.
As a novel this is the story of a small group of individuals, it doesn't aim to look at what happened to the German left/far left in the Weimar period, but it is ground which has not been so thoroughly covered in the books about the period I have read, and it made me want to know more about the real people whose stories Anna Funder explores here. I was really interested by the stories of the German revolutionary socialist movement. Ruth was just a child during the First World War, but remembers Dora as already a teenage anti war activist.
Ruth's initial response to the news of the Nazis being elected is to put up a little red flag. Initial efforts to build effective resistance to Hitler go nowhere though, and the novel becomes a story of the refugee experience, as Ruth, Hans, Dora and Toller move to London. However, even in England, their situation is frustrating and precarious, with strict conditions placed on them as refugees. They are "dislocated and struggling - without our language, often without money, without readership and with no right to work", and with visas stipulating "no political activities of any kind". As Ruth says, "We were being offered exile on condition that we were silent about the reason we needed it". For people whose whole adult lives had been shaped and defined by their political activism, this is hard to imagine. Think of being terrified for friends and family left behind and not being allowed to talk about it.
Worse is to come. This part of the novel takes on a thriller quality, only we know at this point that there isn't going to be an action hero who can save the day. As they were real people, you can look up what happened to the characters in this novel, but I will not discuss that here, to avoid spoilers.
I found All That I am a very moving novel of love, friendship, politics, mourning and much more besides. Highly recommended.
All That I am by Anna Funder was published by Penguin Viking, September 2011, and is currently £11.04/£10.99 in hardback/Kindle - the paperback comes out in May this year.
This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Thank you to Penguin Viking for sending me a copy to review for Curious Book Fans.