A blurb for Stasiland (2002) at the Toronto Public Library website reads:
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist. In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum literally overnight, and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their country men and women, there are a thousand stories just waiting to get out.
Julia Behrend meets with Major N.
I began my reading, on page 110 of Stasiland, with a paragraph in which Major N. is described as insinuating, to the East German citizen Julia Behrend, that he knew that her Italian boyfriend “had an image of her that didn’t quite hit the mark.”
Major N., in the interaction outlined in these pages, sought to establish that while Julia had a vague idea of the nature of her Italian boyfriend’s employment in the computer industry in Italy, the Stasi was aware that he was in fact a sales manager for the regional branch of a computer company in that country. Major N. also went on to discuss the make of car that Julia’s boyfriend drove.
The backstory about Julia is that she experienced expulsion from life in East Germany “until the Stasi offered to redeem her if she would inform for them” (p. 120). She got out of her predicament by the adoption of a clever, last-ditch, rule-breaking tactic.
What was said was not real, what was real was not allowed
The context of Julia Behrend’s story can be summed up in a quotation on p. 120:
“I’ve been in a place where what was said was not real, and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard from again, or were smuggled into other realms.”
Soviet built environment
Elsewhere in the book (pp. 123-124), the author describes a visit to a former East German propaganda facility:
This place seems to have been designed on the same one-size-fits-all architectural principle as everything else: the Runden Ecke in Leipzig and Stasi HQ at Normannenstrasse; the same as prisons and hospitals and schools and administrative buildings all over this country, and probably the same as inside the brown Palast der Republik only it’s behind bars and I can’t get in. From here to Vladivostok this was Communism’s gift to the built environment – linoleum and grey cement, asbestos and prefabricated concrete and, always, long long corridors with all-purpose rooms. Behind these doors anything could be happening: inter rogations, imprisonment, examinations, education, administration, hiding out from nuclear catastrophe or, in this case, propaganda.
Anna Funder, author of Stasiland (2002), is also a novelist. She was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1966 and grew up there and in Paris. “She has worked,” a blurb about her adds, “as an international lawyer and radio and television producer.”
The full blurb about her at the beginning of Stasiland reads:
Anna Funder was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1966, and grew up there and in Paris. She has worked as an international lawyer and a radio and television producer. She is the author of Stasiland, winner of the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction in the United Kingdom (the world’s biggest prize for nonfiction), the Index Freedom of Expression Award, and the W.H. Heinemann Award from the Royal Society of Literature. The book was also short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, will be published in hardcover in February 2012 by HarperCollins. She lives in Brooklyn.
The qualifications that Anna Funder brings to her work are impressive.
As I have noted in a previous post, writers who get employment as lawyers or as anthropologists tend to be good writers.
I am reminded that another good way to go about getting into the writing business is outlined in the summer 2015 issue of U of T Magazine.
Training for journalism: many options
The article in question, in the U of T Magazine, is entitled “Breaking News: U of T is rethinking how journalists get trained.”
A key paragraph, in the above-noted article by John Lorinc, reads:
Steiner’s vision of freelancing is obviously very different, with its focus on specialists who figure out how to “own” a topic and then use their expertise to sell unique stories to a wide range of global media customers. “This is a very different kind of freelance game,” he says. “We are training people to be leading global journalists. ” In the old model, many generalist freelancers would pitch similar stories to a small number of local editors – “a buyer’s market.” Under the Munk School model, the freelancer becomes one of the best writers in the world on a specialized topic, turning the relationship with editors into more of a seller’s market. To that end, Munk fellows learn a rigorous and repeatable approach to idea generation and get a crash course in news judgment. “The basic rule is, ‘always, always be pitching.'”
Julia and her Italian boyfriend
I turn now to pp. 110-111 of Stasiland.
As the conversation continues, Major N. turns to Julia’s “life-in-progress.” He must know everything about me, Julia tells herself.
However, the one thing that Major N. did not know, or at least did nor seem to know, and which she found ironic, was that she had broken up with her boyfriend.
“Since their split in Hungary,” Anna Funder writes, “the Italian boyfriend had written several imploring letters. Julia had replied to the first one but then stopped writing.”
In the larger scheme of things, that turned out to be a minor detail.
As I continued to read Stasiland (2002), I was strongly reminded of North Korea, as in:
A passage from p. 136 by Anna Funder, concerning an interview with a former GDR propaganda official, continues to resonate:
He can switch from from one view to another with frightening ease. I think it is a sign of being accustomed to such power that the truth does not matter because you cannot be contradicted.
[Note from March 23, 2021: When I recently read the entire book, years later, I have noted to myself that I had recently copied the above-noted passage into a notebook, of the kind that I use for keeping track of what I’m reading and thinking about. Clearly, this is a quote that resonates profoundly, from my perspective as a reader. A related concept, which I’ve explored from time to time at this website is that, sometimes, power speaks its own language whereby in is out, up is down, and big is small.]
My parents are from Estonia, a country I visited in 1989 and 1990 prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Among other things, my focus at that time was on heritage preservation projects in that country, just prior to the gaining of independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1991. Given my personal background, the books that I have described, about East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and about North Korea in the current era, are of particular interest to me.
A July 15, 2015 CBC podcast is entitled: “Hyeonseo Lee shares her perilous escape from North Korea.”
A Feb. 2, 2016 Ryerson Journalism Review article is entitled: ” ‘The greatest act of journalism ever’: Marie Wilson, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says journalism is an integral part of [I]ndigenous culture and history.”
A Jan. 7, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “The problem with newspapers today: the Marty Baron perspective: ‘Spotlight’s’ Marty Baron may be the last of the old-time Humphrey Bogart editors. Pity.”
A J-Source article (originally in The Conversation), for which I do not have a date (downloaded March 23, 2021), is entitled: “Journalism jobs are precarious, financially insecure and require family support.”
An excerpt (I have omitted the embedded links) reads:
HuffPost recently laid off dozens of Canadian journalists and closed its news site. Bell Media Inc. has also laid off hundreds of journalists.
Journalism is a notoriously precarious profession. Downsizing and layoffs are almost routine, and many journalists find themselves bouncing between news organizations and periods of freelance work during their careers. Yet journalism is not the only precarious profession — for decades, scholars have been documenting the increasing precarity of employment.
There has been a rise in freelance and gig work in low-skilled jobs such as care work, domestic services, trade work, delivery services and transportation. And there has been a recent increase in gig work in higher-skilled fields such as information technology and creative work as well. People in these precarious fields of work describe their work as intense and demanding, but at the same time, unstable and insecure.