Given the striking intelligence and originality that Anna Funder brought to the subject of the East German Secret Police in her award-winning Stasiland, it comes as no surprise to find her first novel All that I Am so assured and poised. The two books share more than their German political and historical focus, and that’s Funder’s capacity to delve into the moral complexities of lives trapped in very difficult circumstances.
Part one of All That I Am opens in a Sydney hospital with a beautifully understated sentence: ‘I’m afraid, Mrs. Becker, the news is not altogether comforting.’ Ruth Becker (Wesserman) is at the end of a long life, lived, we soon realise, in the most discomforting circumstances imaginable. Born in Germany in the first decade of the 20th century, Ruth has lived a remarkable life, at the centre of the small but passionate group of engaged activists who saw early on the repugnant brutality of Nazism, and who resisted. It’s an old cliché about the personal being political, and every act being a political act, but it holds true in this book, as the relationships between Ruth, her charismatic cousin Dora and the dramatist Ernst Toller (who was, in fact, president of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919) unfold in the Weimar and early Nazi years.
This is a story based on real people, and the powerful subject matter is brilliantly organised through a dual narrative, told by Ruth and Toller, rendered more complex by being told across time shifts of 80 years. Interwar Germany, London and New York, as well as contemporary Sydney, are vividly present, all the while contextualised by the dramas of heroism and betrayal played out before us. This is a genuinely moving novel, which challenges the reader’s perception and judgement, at the same time as it works as a political, and historical, thriller. And the moral dilemmas present for all the historical characters, real and imagined, are at the absolute centre of the novel. It’s not just the potential of the consequences of anybody’s actions that is so riveting; it’s the contest between courage and cowardice, risk and safety, loyalty and betrayal, in a world of increasing terror, where the stakes are, as we know from history, so high.
David Gaunt is co-owner of Gleebooks in Sydney. This review first appeared in the August issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Anna Funder is as a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival.