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.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2002
* 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.