By Anna FunderFiction Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Australia
All That I Am
Anna Funder’s fiction debut came with towering expectations – her first book, Stasiland, was an internationally acclaimed bestseller. A landmark work of reportage, it fearlessly investigated how the East German secret police affected ordinary lives during the Cold War.
All That I Am is a beautifully executed blend of historical fiction and psychological thriller, following the lives of a London-based network of activist refugees from Hitler’s Germany. It, too, has tenuous roots in non-fiction: Funder took her inspiration from interviews she’d recorded with Ruth Blatt, a German refugee living in Australia. She also draws on other historical figures, like playwright and leftist activist Ernst Toller. But in imagining their lives, she takes full advantage of the creative license fiction allows, remaking these characters and their situations anew.
All That I Am illuminates Germany in the years preceding Hitler’s rise to power and the early days of his reign, helping us to imagine the unimaginable: how he captured the popular support of his people. More shockingly, it reveals how the rest of the world wilfully refused to see the threat posed by Hitler’s Germany – to the extent that the UK deported politically active refugees. The setting moves between present-day Sydney, and London, Berlin and New York in the years between the two world wars; its time-travelling structure mimicking the non-linear process of memory.
This is an elegantly written, richly characterised and impressively researched novel, with the immersive qualities of a page-turner and a fierce intellect at its heart.
Alternately narrated by two refugees from Nazi Germany, Ernst Toller and Ruth Becker, All That I Am is a worthy tribute to the writers, intellectuals and political activists who were among the first to be targeted by Hitler’s brutal regime. A historical novel with the tense atmosphere of a political thriller, it successfully captures the oppressive state of fear and uncertainty in which its characters are forced to live. But its sense of the relative powerlessness of the individual before the overwhelming forces of history is tempered by its recognition of the human capacity for courage and resistance.
In All That I Am, Funder has written an intelligent and sensitive novel about one of the darkest episodes in human history.
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‘Is to be passed over the same as being blessed? I do not feel blessed.’ Hauntingly reframing the deliverance tale of her Old Testament forebears, Ruth Becker, sitting in her Sydney retirement home, appraises her state. It is something between a helpless tenacity (which, in her trouble-spun path, has resulted in an unexpectedly long life) and pure guilt and regret.
Long loosened from a tightly knit band of exiled German leftist activists, and settled in ‘sparkling’ Sydney by way of London and Shanghai, elderly Ruth now depends on the ‘halp’ of bustling, grumbling Bev. Yet her mind is as nimble and steadfast as ever: ‘I could still find my way around the villa I grew up in with my eyes closed, if I needed to.’ Such is the strength of Ruth’s memories that the arrival of a 60-year-old manuscript catapults her into painful recollections that nevertheless constitute the imperative of survival: bearing witness to what has gone before.
All That I Am pieces together two remaining strands of this testimony with an elegant, urgent force. Emerging from the deep past to land as a package on Ruth’s doormat, the second voice in this duet is Ernst Toller’s. The old manuscript, brittle and broken, is a copy of Toller’s autobiography, I Was a German, but with sheets of typed amendments. An ex-revolutionary, a playwright and the public face for the Independent Social Democratic Party’s cause of peace, Toller realised that though he had long ‘fed the world and those I loved into my work’, he had never recorded anything of Dora Fabian, his lover and co-conspirator, and Ruth’s beloved cousin. Ensconced in a room at the Mayflower Hotel in New York in 1939, Toller plans to ‘write her into existence’, but knows his plan is fraught – how to capture the essence of one who was ‘a verb’? Still, as Ruth reads his account, the washes of her own memory interweave with his record, creating a richer portrait than either could achieve on their own: a tender, yearning call-and-response split over place and time.
As were Toller, and Ruth’s journalist husband Hans Wesemann, Dora was a real person. (Ruth is based on Anna Funder’s friend, Ruth Blatt.) With the fictional Dora, Funder has paid tribute to a little-known hero of the time. Dora is the organising force of the party, and of the novel. Whether publicly championing women’s rights or arranging a party member’s security with utmost secrecy, Dora was the compassionate, brave, living heart of the movement. As Ruth recalls, ‘Dora had a sense of purpose so profound that when I was with her it was impossible to feel lost.’ Drawn here for us is a woman for whom fear never overrode principle, a woman possessed of courage that might not be imaginable had she not been real.
The political activities of the pacifists make them targets for Hitler’s rising regime, and in what are some of the novel’s tensest passages, Toller, Dora, Ruth, Hans and the famous, ferrety pacifist Bertie, leave Germany just in time; tragic, brutal butchery of the new leader’s enemies is to follow. Ostensibly safe in their hidey-holes around Europe, they discover with terror that the dictator’s reach is long and has many agents: rabid German expats who support the homeland right, impeccably trained German operatives who can fool their way through locked doors and, most horrifyingly, traitors from among their own.
History always counts, but making history personal gives it life anew. It and its actors are easily forgotten, as Toller laments: ‘Will the world forget we tried so hard to save it?’ All That I Am is a cry to the future from the blighted past, telling us that the record may be wrong, and that it is impoverished by omission. Combining fiction and forensics, Funder has wrought an affecting paean to personal truth that testifies to the importance of remembering, even as the cogs of history turn on.
The Premier’s 21 Shortlist