This year’s Miles Franklin winner Anna Funder delves into the lives of those who risk everything to stand up against tyranny.
ANNA Funder is running late for lunch, because she has to advise the Daily Mail on totalitarian tyranny. From across the Atlantic, London’s most strident tabloid has tracked the Australian author to her new home in Brooklyn, New York, to pick her brain on the fraught issue of water-saving policy.
Once again, it seems, Britain has gone to the dogs. Neighbours are being asked to dob in water wasters, she is told. I mean really. Does that remind you of something? Stasi Germany, perhaps?
A decade after publication of the award-winning Stasiland, the Melbourne-born Funder is still getting used to being asked for her opinion on oppression. She seems uncomfortable, amused and surprised that a journalist would ping her as an ”expert” in such a surreal context (in the end she pointed out that it was not so much evidence of a terrifying plunge towards a totalitarian state as a reasonable way to help save water and the climate).
But genuine oppression is a theme she has returned to in All That I Am, her first novel, based around real characters and stories from the decade before the Second World War.
In London, a small group of German activists tried to alert the world to what Hitler was about to do – and what his secret police were already doing to political exiles in London and mainland Europe.
The book – a mixture of love story, thriller, historical detective story and meditation on memory – has won several awards including, last week, the Miles Franklin. It was praised by the judges as ”a masterful and exhilarating exploration of bravery and betrayal”.
And that’s how Funder prefers to see her work, both in fiction and non-fiction – not just the story of oppressors, but more than that, a fascination with the resisters.
”I’m really interested in courage,” she says, when we meet again at her Brooklyn apartment, where half-unpacked moving boxes still lurk in the corners.
”It is really the nature of power to silence dissent and it is in the nature of people to want to speak out. When power is concentrated in ways that are incredibly unhealthy, there are always, everywhere, people who will speak out against that at their great cost, and that fascinates me.”
Funder’s own speaking out against oppression – or repression – has roots she traces back to her life growing up in Carlton. She was born into a scientific household, her mother a social scientist, her father a medical researcher, both distinguished in their fields.
In a way, her career now is a rebellion against that household.
”In our house, if you had an emotion and you wished to express it, it felt like you had to justify it,” she told a writers’ festival last week in Britain. ”Preferably by reference to a double-blind empirical study published in an international, peer-reviewed journal.
”Consequently, I have spent my professional life trying to put language to what was always unspoken in our house: the vast, subterranean world of irrational but controlling truths. Trying to represent the movements – strange and unpredictable and measured largely in epiphenomena, of the human heart.”
It’s a writer’s argument, a novelist’s romance. But it does explain part of what drew her to leave legal practice and tell the stories of the victims of Stasi Germany and Nazi Germany – stories of depth and tragedy that mere academic dissection could not do justice to (also she never really felt at home working as a lawyer, she says: ”I remember looking around me at my colleagues in their corrals and thinking: these people are living their real lives and here I am, taking notes. This is not reality to me, it is material.”).
But there were other nudges along the way. After double majors in English and German at the University of Melbourne, a stint at the Free University in Berlin just before the Wall came down, and a law degree, Funder went to work for a short time in a commercial law firm that represented asbestos manufacturer James Hardie on mesothelioma cases.
”I found that a deeply confronting experience,” Funder says. ”I saw upstanding members of the community in suits, who earned a lot of money, going around making arguments to extend cases so they would go on longer, while the person who had mesothelioma would die [and not receive a payout], and that’s what they were doing in those offices … that’s what our job really was – of course, it was never discussed as that.
”I don’t think it is so hard to understand [such behaviour], which is a terrible and revealing thing about me. I don’t think it’s that there is this massive dark side, that people are monstrous.
”Take the Stasi, those men were not more monstrous than anybody else I’ve known in law or government in particular, but they were people who wanted a nice life and a good income and a safe life … We all make those kinds of bargains, they are completely human bargains, and then you find yourself in a committee meeting at the Stasi or the [Nazi] Wannsee Conference, and it’s minuted in a way that nobody feels responsible personally.
”The practical implementation of things that are done in committees is what we are all fighting against and it’s not monstrous evil, it’s just ordinary human committee decision-making.”
She laughs at the slightly absurd way that idea came out. But, consciously or unconsciously, she found herself drawn to constitutional law, to the parts of our democracy that fight against tyranny-by-committee.
”Lord Acton says ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a left-wing regime like in Stasiland or a right-wing regime like in All That I Am. What fascinates me are the mechanisms of democracy and the separation of powers, including press and judiciary, that stop these things happening.”
But when those protections fail, all that are left are individuals who become the building blocks of Funder’s writing.
One of those individuals was Funder’s long-time friend Ruth Blatt, exactly 60 years her senior, a left-wing political activist who fled Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. Blatt’s life and stories enthralled Funder, and eventually were transformed into the character ”Ruthie”, an Australian and contemporary frame through which the action in All That I Am is observed.
”She was a lovely, clever, but not so clever, kind of innocent in a way, feisty, straight-talking sweet woman who I really loved,” Funder says, a catch in her voice. ”To have a friend who is 60 years older than you is a very unusual thing and what that does is make life seem long, at the same time as history concertinas back on itself and time seems short.
”So I wanted to do that in the book, to bring all this into present memory and collapse it so it doesn’t seem like it’s far away.”
It is tempting to see one of the lines late in the book All That I Am as the author’s voice explaining its existence: ”Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any … Once you have imagined such suffering, how can you then still do nothing?”
All That I Am took Funder five years to research and write, and for much of that time it was all-consuming, she says.
”Over [that time] some quite momentous things happened in my life. My little daughters [Amy and Imogen, 10 and 7] grew and started school, my son [Max] was born. But the whole time I was … caught up in my characters. These characters were the first things I thought of in the morning, I spent all day with them, and they were the last things I thought of at night.
”I put the manuscript away for six months from mid-2009 when [Max] was born, thinking that I’d get some perspective on it and that I could just relax and breastfeed, but I continued to think about it the whole time. Surprised my milk didn’t curdle.”
One of the things Funder was wrestling with was the ”rickety maze” of the novel’s construction, with two first-person narrators in two different eras, each remembering the people and events of prior years, with grand historical events and political tides sweeping in the background, and their own personal dramas unfolding. She would go through it together with her husband Craig, a town planner, to try and build a sturdy, functioning story from the foundations up.
There would be scenes where all the different elements threatened to overwhelm her: one pivotal scene in a Berlin nightclub took her six weeks to get straight, balancing the needs of the characters, and the urgency of unspooling history, in a sexy scene that brings the decadence of the venue to life.
”Once the writing exists it’s like ‘how can that have been so hard’,” she says. ”Sometimes I look at it and think, how can that have been six weeks of my life? But it’s really hard to do, it’s a mind-bending exercise.”
Another challenge for Funder was the tension between fact and fiction.
”I started writing [non-fiction] Stasiland as a novel,” Funder says. ”Then it became really clear that the novel was execrable and it didn’t feel appropriate to have such extraordinary stories of human courage, and the Stasi men on the other side, to make a book that goes into the world where those people are and to somehow appropriate that experience for novelistic purposes. It just didn’t feel right.”
Also, she says, she wanted it to be real, to document a time and place in history that many were trying to forget, in an age when ex-Stasi men still rub elbows with their former victims in the supermarket.
But when it came to All That I Am, and the similarly rarely remembered story of the exiles from Hitler and their struggle to warn of Hitler’s evil, Funder took the path of fiction.
She was determined to use real elements. The historical facts are precise. Many of her characters are real people – the playwright Ernst Toller, the activist Dora Fabian, her friend Ruth.
But there was a crucial difference. Not to spoil the story, but there is a key event at the end of the book that has a particular explanation on the historical record – an explanation that Funder’s research led her to believe was wrong. ”If you want to rewrite history or make some intervention, you have to go back and look at all the evidence, which I did, and all the people, and then stitch together another story,” she says.
She also wanted to imagine the courage of her protagonists, their risk-taking and fear, when they were no longer around to talk for themselves, unlike the people she interviewed for Stasiland.
”The purpose of the novel, really, is to do what novels are for, which is to get inside someone else’s consciousness. Non-fiction just can’t do that. So I was getting in a new car, in fiction, and seeing what I could do with it.
”With Stasiland, some of the details are things I observed in the real world, and some of them I think are psychological observations about mood. It’s like you’re some kind of lint filter, you are rolling over things and picking up stuff.
”But with the fiction, sometimes you don’t know where it really comes from. Sometimes you don’t know whether it works, either.”
Clearly, it worked. The success of the book has clearly affected Funder – she feels more relaxed, she is starting to read other people’s novels after years dedicated to research.
She is particularly looking forward to reading War and Peace – a gap in her canon that she wants to fill, particularly because she is interested in seeing how such an accomplished author combined history with invention.
Funder is also starting to get used to living in a strange land. She has lived in Paris and Berlin, but says Brooklyn feels more alien than either.
”I feel that I underestimated how foreign I would be here,” she says. ”The language is common but I’m not sure that I’m understanding the subtext. We have so much American culture at home that we think we understand what it is to be American … but they don’t have that relationship to us, so we come here and we could be Swedish or Zimbabwean or something.
”People are very friendly to you but you’re still very foreign to them. All these women say that women’s friendships in particular work in a completely different way. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, you’ll be talking to someone and think you’re getting along really well and they’re really friendly and you think ‘this is going somewhere’, like having a cup of coffee together or becoming friends, and then absolutely nothing happens.”
Funder particularly felt the culture divide when she was being coached recently on giving a presentation on her book to the Jewish Book Council Circuit.
”In the end, [the coach] said ‘you know, I think what I need from you is I need you to E-MOTE’. And I thought that’s it, I’m not emoting properly. So I’ve got a lot to learn.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.