All That I Am, By Anna Funder

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Stasiland, Anna Funder's 2004 Samuel Johnson prize-winner, was a collection of accounts of life in the former East Germany as related by both victims and perpetrators of the regime. It was a powerful work that explored what it was about the German psyche that made so many of its citizens such natural informers. By personalising history, Funder also made people responsible for it.

In All That I Am, Funder takes her first step into full-blown fiction, albeit with a story firmly grounded in historical fact. The book concerns a group of German dissidents who fled to London in 1933 in the hope of alerting the world to the dangers of Hitler's rise. Best known among this set was Ernst Toller, a once-famous, leftwing playwright and the president of the short-lived Bavarian republic.

Funder comes to his story via the auspices of a real-life character, Ruth Wesermann – an elderly German living in Sydney, who in 2001 received a copy of Toller's memoir, I Was A German, unearthed in the basement of a condemned New York hotel. It emerges that these two long-separated exiles were once intimately connected by their mutual affection for Ruth's cousin, Dora Fabian, a charismatic feminist and Toller's one-time lover.

Cutting between Toller's account and Ruth's memories, Funder describes how this group of young activists exchanged a life of political daring in pre-war Berlin, for an isolated and miserable existence in a flat in Great Ormond Street. Under constant surveillance by the Gestapo, the group starts to implode as relationships break down and secrets are betrayed. This part of the novel is partly based on a contemporary mystery involving the discovery of the bodies of two German émigrés found locked in a bedroom in Bloomsbury.

As in her debut, Funder handles the book's constant time-shifts with agility and assurance. While Dora and Ruth prove as much victims of their men as of the war, their fearless attempts to undermine the Nazi regime are far from passive. Seeing Ruth in her antipodean dotage sucking on shortbread biscuits, the novel confronts the upsetting notion that the true complexities of lives are all too easily swallowed up in history's hungry maw.