Following high praise for her first non-fiction work, Stasiland, and rave reviews for her first novel, All That I Am, it’s no surprise Anna Funder went on to win the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award just a few weeks ago.
In All That I Am Funder documents Hitler’s rise to power and the lives of five German activists who are inescapably affected by the Third Reich. Along the way are chilling descriptions of brutality and betrayal.
The story is told from the perspectives of Ruth Beckman, an elderly former lecturer suffering aphasia in present-day Sydney, and Ernst Toller, a playwright living in New York during the Second World War. Toller and Ruth are part of a group of activists who oppose Hitler’s regime and are forced into exile in London after facing senseless brutality in Germany. The Nazi’s swift and brutal attack on outspoken, political activists is haunting,
‘By the time they got to us that morning, these boys and their fellows had already killed fifty-one people, and arrested more than four thousand…when they found eight Communists hiding in a cellar in Mitte, they simply boarded it up. People walking to work heard their calls from the vent at pavement level but no one dared help. It took two weeks for all cries to stop.’
After escaping arrest in Germany and taking to London, the group attempts to re-establish their lives and alert the British government to Hitler’s plans for war. These attempts, though, are unsuccessful, and the seemingly intentional ignorance of the international community is exasperating.
There is a sense of incredulity that permeates the book. The characters’ disbelief in the British, in their own government, is palpable, and Funder makes this real and relatable through her descriptive and thoughtful prose. Says Toller of one of his fellow wounded soldiers, ‘He’s brave, but he has the look, like many of us here: This cannot possibly be my life; there must be some mistake.’
This seems to be the attitude of every character, of the novel itself. Funder transports us to a time when there could have been action, where there was hope for change, and the knowledge that there was none makes the novel all the more heart-wrenching.
The story climaxes with the deaths of two of the activists under mysterious circumstances in London. The pair is found lying in bed, facing each other with their hands intertwined. What makes it all the more saddening is that it is a true event, and one which has remained a mystery. There were many other deaths, many other exiles under Hitler’s regime before the start of World War II, as many as 55,000 according to Funder. The Gestapo was operating outside of Germany, silencing any who spoke out against the regime. Hitler’s power extended much further, much earlier, than many were aware.
The novel moves across time and continents with ease, drawing us from Rose Bay and the Mayflower Hotel back to London and Berlin in the early years of Hitler’s reign. The story, the event, is undeniably sad and shocking. Yet such events continue to occur today as brave individuals oppose tyrannical governments across the globe. Each event warrants our attention, and Funder has drawn ours to this one. She breathes life into these people and sheds light upon a dark and little known part of history.