Stasiland (2002); Without You (2014); They Left Us Everything (2014)
Stasiland (2002) by Anna Funder is a study of East Germany, a winner of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in the United Kingdom. According to a blurb the award is prestigious and qualifies as the world’s biggest prize for non-fiction.
Another book, a novel by Anna Funder who was born in 1966 is also a prize-winner as a post at the Toronto Public Library website notes:
“All That I Am, the debut novel by Anna Funder, was the 2012 winner of Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Set in 1930s Europe and based on a true story, it is the story of a group of young German exiles who risk their lives to awaken the world to the terrifying threat of Hitler and Nazi Germany.”
[End of excerpt]
Without You, There is No Us (2014)
Stasiland (2002) has truly taken hold of my attention. As soon as I read the first paragraph, that I chose at random, I was captivated.
Two other books that similarly have prompted me to stop in my tracks have been:
Reading a single paragraph of an author’s work is similar to what occurs when you meet a person for the first time. In a matter of seconds, you form an impression.
Each of the three above-noted authors has conducted extensive research, and/or is drawing upon a wealth of interviews.
In each case, the approach differs from a standard academic approach toward the topic at hand – valuable as such academic approaches may be. It also differs in each case from the work of a standard generalist journalist. That being said, I have read some very fine work by generalist journalists. Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (1999), by way of example, is an excellent study by a generalist journalist.
Recordings or notes of conversations
In Stasiland (2002) and Without You (2014) the dialogue is based upon audio recordings or detailed notes taken on the day of the relevant event or conversation.
In each case, the author presents herself in some detail as a protagonist in the story, or as a character in the narrative.
Anna Funder, Suki Kim, and Plum Johnson
Each author presents a novelist’s way of looking at things.
Each writer shares details about who she is as she sets the scene. Each writer speaks of herself as a way to move the story along. The focus of each book, however, is on the larger narrative.
I will close with the passage from Stasiland (2002), in which Anna Funder describes the nature of her quest, and Julia reflects about what the topic at hand means to her:
In Stasiland, Julia Behrend (whose experiences are highlighted in a previous post) reflects upon two systems:
‘I think it’s important, what you’re doing,’ she says, as if to comfort me, and I am ashamed. ‘For anyone to understand a regime like the GDR, the stories of ordinary people must be told. Not just the activists or the famous writers.’ Her eyes, grey-green, have a dark shape in them. When it moves, I see that it is me. ‘You have to look at how normal people manage with such things in their pasts.’
‘I think I’m losing track of normal.’
‘Yes,’ she says, smiling, ‘I know it’s relative. We easterners have an advantage, perhaps, in that we can remember and compare two kinds of systems.’ Her mouth twists into a smile as she collects her cigarettes and lighter and puts them in her pocket. ‘But I don’t know if that’s an advantage, I mean you see the mistakes of one system – the surveillance – and the·mistakes of the other – the inequality – but there’s nothing you could have done in the one, and nothing you can do now about the other.’ She laughs wryly. ‘And the clearer you see that, the worse you feel.’
On pp. 251-252 in Stasiland Anna Funder speaks about nostalgia for East Germany:
I don’t doubt this genuine nostalgia, but I think it has coloured a cheap and nasty world golden; a world where there was nothing to buy, nowhere to go and anyone who wanted to do anything with their lives other than serve the Party risked persecution, or worse.
A Feb. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘My family resisted the Nazis’: why director had to film Alone in Berlin.”
An Aug. 15, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Joseph Goebbels’ 105-year-old secretary: ‘No one believes me now, but I knew nothing’: Brunhilde Pomsel worked at the heart of the Nazis’ propaganda machine. As a film about her life is released, she discusses her lack of remorse and the private side of her monstrous boss.”