All That I Am by Anna Funder (Viking an imprint of Penguin Books - September 2011)
All That I Am could be said to be a tribute to the German journalist, writer and political activist Dr Dora Fabian who, alongside her comrade Mathilde Wurm, was allegedly ‘suicided’ on the 4th of April 1935 by Nazi agents operating on foreign soil. The assassination, which took place in the attic flat of 12 Great Ormond Street in Bloomsbury, was a calculated attempt to prevent the circulation of Hitler’s war plans as well as a final warning to anyone trying to undermine the Nazi regime. The flat served as a base for members of the German Socialist Workers Party, as an archive and as headquarters out of which exiled intellectuals throughout Europe were coordinated. These efforts to warn the world about Hitler’s true goals prevailed, despite the fact that political rallying was not only discouraged by UK immigration laws but could also lead to expulsion and death in a German concentration camp.
Dr Fabian is described as the sun around which many German refugees and political activists in exile rotated like planets. Her story is told from the point of view of two of these ‘planets’; namely the acclaimed playwright Ernst Toller and Dora’s first cousin Ruth Blatt alias Ruth Wesemann née Becker. These two points of view are coherent in idealising Dr Fabian as a heroine and martyr, even though at the point of narration Ruth is an elderly pensioner remembering the events with the advantage of hindsight; but through the haze of her neurological disorder, while Toller dictates the events to his secretary as he completes his memoir prior to the outbreak of World War II. There is a sense of omnipotence in the way history is portrayed which is, in style and purpose, perhaps closer to biography than it is to fiction. Yet the narrating ‘I’ is also a constant reminder of the need to testify and witness; the responsibilities that come with knowledge.
The opening of this novel could seem slightly bizarre—almost light-hearted:
When Hitler came to power I was in the bath. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud so Hans could hear it in the kitchen, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon.
Despite this there is nothing trivial or ambiguous about this novel as it tries to go back to ‘the beginning’: the Great War, the German revolution, the idealistic spirit of pacifism and freedom of the Weimar Republic, the economic stalemate when ordinary citizens went to buy bread with a wheelbarrow full of banknotes. This novel aims to highlight what happened between the wars, which perhaps should be seen as one war with a twenty-year ceasefire. Yet how far back is ‘the beginning’ when considering homo homini lupus est (man has always been a wolf to his fellow man) which seems to imply that the real enemy is within? In Ernst Toller’s opinion the ‘enemy within’ unmistakably facilitated the great inferno of WWII: ‘“Fear,” he said, “is the psychological foundation for all dictatorships.”’ Then again he never got to see the full impact of such a dictatorship. It is worth keeping in mind that the writing was on the walls even before Hitler was made Chancellor in 1933.
This book is a stark reminder of how thin the line is between ‘P’olitical laissez-faire and complicity; allowing freedom of expression and betrayal of justice; solidarity and integrity. It is a balancing act which, in hindsight, is easy to define; a balancing act which is not less delicate now than it was back then with regards to elected and non-elected dictatorships around the globe. Funder also introduces us to the subtle politics of the private sphere: the relationships and dynamics within a party of friends, a family, a marriage or love affair. How sexual freedom may not exclude suppressed emotions—friendship may not exclude professional jealousies.
Clearly this is a tragic story; the desperate struggle of a handful of activists against a grinding army of thugs. There is no explicit ‘blaming’ for the opening of the Reichstag to the Brown Shirts, just a constant disbelief at how irreversible it had all seemed right from the beginning. The overwhelming sense of hopelessness is never far away as the novel tries to explain, analyse, rationalise events and keep tally of those who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis in those early years, including Theodor Lessing and Berthold Jacob. Many victims are mentioned as they simply vanished in the Gestapo Security Office in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, Berlin. At times facts are exposed through a courtroom drama device, at other times information passes like a rumour through the ranks of the resistance. Still, no one changes history. The tragedy seems even bleaker in the knowledge that, despite the sacrifices made in the mid-thirties, the war-machine went on to eradicate millions. Funder aims to encourage a sober and pragmatic approach to the past; a call to courage itself, in the light of all political persecution, to overcome fear.
This book already comes highly recommended. Funder’s Stasiland, which contains stories from behind the Berlin Wall, earned her the Samuel Johnson Prize 2004. All That I Am is her first novel. It has won the Independent Bookseller’s Award for Best Debut Fiction, Indie Book of the Year 2012, and the Australian Book Industry Awards' Book of the Year and Literary Fiction Book of the Year, and it was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award 2012. It is certainly an engaging read as well as a reminder to all writers to consider their social obligations. I felt it to be more of a historical novel than a historical novel, as its factual and stoic stance leaves little space for indulgences or whims, and the urge for a complete ‘back story’ borders on the academic, particularly as the novel tries to find closure. Indeed, can there be closure?