Viking, £16.99, 370pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
All That I Am, By Anna Funder
Friday 07 October 2011
In her debut novel, the Australian writer Anna Funder weaves together fact and fiction to produce a compelling and moving portrait of the struggle against Nazi oppression. It is a fitting sequel to Stasiland – winner of the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction – as again Funder has proved herself an adroit chronicler of German history. However, whereas the horrors in Stasiland smacked of fiction, so poignantly rendered were her snapshots of East German life, here the exact opposite is the case: truth shaped into fiction, but with equally devastating results.
All That I Am is based an actual group of left-wing, predominantly Jewish German activists, at the centre of which are Ruth Wesemann (also referred to as Ruth Becker and Ruth Blatt, depending on where you choose to draw the boundaries between character and historical figure); her husband Hans; her cousin Dora Fabian; and Dora's lover, the playwright Ernst Toller. Exiled from Germany following Hitler's rise to power in 1933, they find themselves adrift in Bloomsbury, "dislocated and struggling" among the other political emigrnats.
Despite fear of retribution, Dora and Toller, aided by Ruth, continue their clandestine efforts against the regime. Hans, stripped of his previous identity as war hero and lauded reporter, haunts the British Museum Reading Room "like someone who had mislaid himself". The sense of unease and danger slowly escalates and, as war looms ever closer, so does the chilling reach of the Gestapo.
The novel begins in Sydney in 2001 where the ageing Ruth finds her memories of the past reawakened by Toller's unexpurgated memoirs. The narrative switches back and forth between Ruth and Toller's interior monologues, Funder maintaining the distinction between the two admirably well. They are united by the love each had for Dora: "We were the two for whom she was the sun. We moved in her orbit and the force of her kept us going". Ultimately, it is Ruth (Funder's own friend, to whom she acknowledges her "most profound debt" for the novel) who holds the "constellation" of this story together.
Today I stood outside the house on Great Ormond Street where so much of the story takes place and thought how easily history can be relegated to the realms of fiction – but what gives this novel its depth is the way Funder engages with this exact issue. Funder's Ruth explains memory itself as a process of appropriation: "I heard the stories so often I took them into me, burnished and smothered them as an oyster a piece of grit, and now, mine or not, they are my shiniest self". This novel may well be smoother than fact but, one might well argue, it's equally authentic.
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