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Anna Funder, Stasiland (Review)

August 29, 2012
Anna Funder's Stasiland bookcover

Funder’s Stasiland (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Anna Funder‘s Stasiland, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, is one of those books that can be reviewed from multiple angles, and I know that when I get to the end of this review I’m going to be sorry about the angles I didn’t get to discuss. But, I can only do what I can do, eh?

I found it interesting to read this book immediately after another non-fiction book, Brenda Niall‘s biography True north, because the contrast clarified for me why I liked True north but loved Stasiland. To put it simply, True north is a well-written but pretty traditional biography, while Stasiland is what I’d call “literary non-fiction”. In other words, in Stasiland, Funder uses some of the literary techniques – relating to structure, voice and language – more commonly found in fiction to tell her story. It’s not surprising really that this is the case, because when I heard her speak last month, she said that she had initially planned to write Stasiland as a novel but, having done the research and interviews, it “didn’t feel right” to turn those people’s stories to another purpose. She was also aware that there were things in these stories that might not be accepted, that might seem too far-fetched in fiction! Such is the fine line we tread between fact and fiction.

At this point, I should describe the book, though its broad subject is obvious from the title. Funder (b. 1966) has a long-standing interest in things German, from her school days when she chose to learn German, and has visited and/or lived in Germany several times. She writes of travelling through the former German Democratic Republic, a country that no longer exists, that comprises “tumble-down houses and bewildered people”, and she describes feeling a sense of “horror-romance”:

The romance comes from the dream of a better world the German communists wanted to build out of the ashes of their Nazi past; from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs. The horror comes from what they did in its name.

And so she decides to try to understand this dichotomy and places an ad in the paper:

Seeking: former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators for interview. Publication in English, anonymity* and discretion guaranteed.

This is, depending on how you look at it, either a very brave or naively silly thing to do. Funder, who sees writing as an act of empathy or compassion, interviews several Stasi men who answer her ad, as well as other East Germans who suffered at Stasi hands. It might be coincidental, but essentially all her subjects who suffered were women, while the perpetrators were men. In fact, when she visits the Stasi HQ in Berlin, she’s told it only had toilets for men! All this is not to say, however, that men didn’t suffer (or, even, that there weren’t women perpetrators). Indeed, some of the Stasi men she interviewed were themselves bullied, blackmailed and otherwise stood over to keep them in line.

What makes this book compelling are the stories she gathers, partly because the stories themselves are powerful and partly because of Funder’s own voice. Funder places herself in the book. This is not a third person “objective” recounting of the interviews she conducted but a journey we take together to find some answers. When she interviews Herr von Schnitzler, who hosted the Black Channel, a television program in which he presented a Communist commentary on excerpted programs from the West, we are in the room with her, hearing not only what he says, but getting a sense of his personality alongside her. We see her being fearless in sticking to her questions in the face of a man who frequently shouts. “I recognise”, she writes, “this pattern of unpredictable shouting followed by bouts of quiet reason from other bullies I have known”. It is particularly in the von Schnitzler section that the GDR paradox becomes most clear. Von Schnitzler was, Funder tells us, molded by the injustices of the Weimar Republic. We see how the drive to create a new society not bedevilled by the iniquities – that is, the inequalities – of capitalism (or imperialism as many of the Stasi men call it) resulted in the creation of an authoritarian society where freedom was minimal (or non-existent) and dissent not allowed. In stark contrast to von Schnitzler and his refusal to see any error in, or critique, the GDR, is Julia, one of the “victims”, who had believed in the GDR but, through having an Italian boyfriend, had become caught in the Stasi net. She discovered that the “state can be so dangerous, so very dangerous, without me having done anything at all” and was completely traumatised by the extent of surveillance and loss of privacy she experienced. And yet, having experienced the East and the West, she can still say

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 … and the clearer you see that the worse you feel.

The GDR story is, as Funder tells it, one of grand humanitarian aims but one also riddled by paradox and irony. She asks Herr Bock, a recruiter of informers, what qualities he looked for in an informer:

‘… and above all else,’ he says, looking at me, his eyes distorted and magnified through the glasses, ‘he needed to be honest, faithful and trustworthy.’

I look back at him. I feel my eyes too, getting wider.

How can you resist a writer who tells a story like this, who shows without telling exactly what is going on, who can inject sly touches of wit and humour into the tough stuff?

I can’t possibly relate all the stories – many quite horrendous – in this book. All I can say is that it is a book that manages to show how history writing can be intimate while at the same time conveying facts and hard truths. It is a memorable book, and worth reading if you have any interest at all in politics and human behaviour.

Anna Funder
Stasiland
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2002
ISBN: 9781877008917
282pp.

* I’m intrigued by the promise of anonymity because it seems that in some, if not in all, cases, real names are used. I presume the people involved agreed to this.

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2012 5:21 pm

    ‘Stasiland’ is wonderful – ‘All That I Am’ is OK. Guess which one most people will read…

    • August 29, 2012 8:28 pm

      Oh I’m glad you agree Tony. Not having read All that I am, I can’t comment on a comparison between the two, but I guess right now, given Stasiland has been around for a long time and that All that I am has garnered prize and after prize, that it’s All that I am that people will read! I hope though that it inspires them to pick up Stasiland if they hadn’t read it already.

    • September 3, 2012 5:22 pm

      Tony, I’m with you. I thought ‘All That I Am’ was very ‘ho hum’ and if not for this review I would probably not pick up another Funder book in a hurry … I just might now!

      • September 3, 2012 5:50 pm

        I think you should Justine … I haven’t heard a word against it!

        • September 3, 2012 6:58 pm

          No, ‘Stasiland’ seems to get unanimous praise, but ‘All That I Am’ has far too many critics for a book which was supposedly the best work of fiction in Australia last year.

          Again though, I’m not saying it was bad, just wildly over-rated…

        • September 3, 2012 7:02 pm

          Interestingly, Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread is running almost neck and neck with All that I am in the awards stakes this year. I keenly wait to see who wins – if either of course – wins the next one.

        • September 3, 2012 7:09 pm

          I think ‘Foal’s Bread’ has slowly started to take over from ‘All That I Am’ – I’d like to read it when I get a minute :)

        • September 3, 2012 7:15 pm

          I liked it Tony … But we don’t always agree so will just wait to see if you get around to reading it!

  2. sharkell permalink
    August 29, 2012 5:24 pm

    What an amazing review – I read Anna Funder’s All That I Am earlier in the year and loved it. I need to move this one up closer to the top of my tbr pile.

    • August 29, 2012 8:25 pm

      Thanks Sharkell … I read this with my reading group. We tossed up which one to read and decided to read Stasiland but some have read All that I am. I’m keen to read it too but I’ve been wanting to read Stasiland for the longest time. It’s a fantastic book – and I’m not ashamed to use such superlatives.

  3. residentjudge permalink
    August 29, 2012 6:25 pm

    Terrific review, Sue. I think that I enjoyed both Stasiland and All That I Am equally, even though they are in different genres.

    • August 29, 2012 8:30 pm

      Thanks RJ. You’ve probably reviewed Stasiland on your blog? (Or did you read it before you started blogging? I shall pop over to look). Thanks for the comparison with All that I am … I am keen to read it.

  4. August 29, 2012 8:31 pm

    This is one I want to read ,as I loved the film lives of others about the stasi ,and worked with a few east germans years ago ,so it would be of great interest to me ,thank for review sue ,all the best stu

    • August 29, 2012 8:59 pm

      Oh thanks Stu … I thought of that film quite a lot as I was reading the book. It was a great film and the book works well in the same context because Funder writes with a great deal of humanity, even with the men who seem totally unrepentant, because she wants to understand and she also recognised the dream (albeit their misguided way of tying to implement it).

  5. August 30, 2012 1:07 am

    This sounds like an intense and really interesting book. Going on my library list right now!

  6. August 30, 2012 4:53 am

    Greetings from Russia, Sue!
    I am so glad you’ve reviewed this, I read it before I started my blog and thought it was brilliant. I’ve been waiting for someone to write a really good review of it so that I can link to it in my review of All That I Am (a book which, for all its prizes, I am ambivalent about).

    • August 30, 2012 7:38 pm

      Thanks Lisa … It’s a great book, isn’t it, and she’s an interesting woman. I’m hoping to get to read All that I am soon … But who knows. The books are piling up!

    • September 3, 2012 6:59 pm

      Not sure if you’ve seen my review of ‘Stasiland’ (very old!):

      http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/2009/10/76-stasiland-by-anna-funder.html

      • September 3, 2012 7:04 pm

        No, I hadn’t Tony. Will check it out.

        • September 3, 2012 7:12 pm

          That comment was more for Lisa, but you’re welcome to check it out too ;)

        • September 3, 2012 7:15 pm

          I have … ,

      • September 4, 2012 2:06 am

        Thanks, Tony, I hadn’t, but I have now – and will link to it on my blog as well. BTW I am writing this from Berlin, where today we have visited The Wall and Checkpoint Charlie – and been NOT served by the rudest waitress I’ve ever come across – who was obviously trained on the wrong side of the wall!

        • September 4, 2012 9:08 am

          Oh dear … But how great to see those places. Have been to Germany … Before the wall came down … But not to Berlin.

  7. August 31, 2012 3:22 pm

    Odd coincidence, I just started reading this. Slightly underwhelmed by descriptive phrases like ‘loud makeup’, which seem more judgmental than evocative, not to mention the startling and rather disloyal ‘I remember my mother’s moustache in the sun’, but will press on.

    • August 31, 2012 6:05 pm

      I’ll be interested in what you think by the end, zmkc. “Loud makeup” didn’t bother me … I don’t particularly recollect it. I do recollect the mustache though. Being related to a writer requires a thick skin I think. I wonder if ten years later she’d still say that.

      • September 4, 2012 8:13 pm

        Always be kind to your mother, I say – she deserves it just for having given birth to you. Will let you know if I stick it out – have been distracted by other volumes that I’m more instantly captivated by but will eventually return to Stasiland (sigh)

        • September 4, 2012 10:07 pm

          Basing a mother I agree in principle zmkc! But that was pretty minor in the scheme of mother abuse methinks. Now Jill Kerr Conway in The road from Coorain is a whole other matter.

  8. September 17, 2012 8:01 am

    Paul, Anna Funder wrote a great non-fiction book entitled Stasiland . She spent time in (former) East Germany, finding out about the Stasi (the secret police during the Cold War). Very, very fascinating stuff.Apparently she wanted to write that one as fiction, but it worked better as non-fiction. I think it wouldn’t have been believed if it was fiction! Anyhow, I found it fascinating, and it was quite at the forefront of my mind when I was reading Le Carre’s Smiley novels earlier this year. All That I Am is about the people who resisted Hitler, from what I’ve read. One of those that’s partially set here and now (literally for me, the first chapter is set in Sydney and I kept on recognising places!). And with this structure, it’s a relief to know that at least one of the characters will survive WW2.

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