A review of All that I am, Anna Funder.
Anna Funder has won multiple prizes for this follow-up to Stasiland, including the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s highest literary achievement. All that I am is a moving narrative based on real-life events and inspired by Anna’s friendship with Ruth Blatt, a woman who emigrated to Australia after fleeing Nazi persecution in 1933, and spending time in England trying to raise awareness of Hitler’s crimes against his own people, then returning to Germany and being imprisoned.
Funder’s journalistic background means that the book sometimes sounds more like memoir, or even an expose during the latter stages; however, the strength of the characters and the lyrical prose hold the story together.
We are introduced to Ruth (Ruth Becker in the novel) from the prologue, with the wonderful opening line: “When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” Ruth and her husband Hans are newly-married and politically active, and at the broadcast of Hitler’s success Ruth daringly flies the left movement’s red flag out of the window.
At that time it was done thoughtlessly and with giggles. Within months the mood has darkened, people are disappearing, labour unions have been outlawed, and life has quickly become oppressive.
This book darts about in time, so is not one to be read as you fall asleep at night; it is best consumed in big chunks. The key characters are Ruth and her cousin Dora, and the real-life German playwright Ernst Toller (although events in his life have been fictionalised to fit in with the story). My favourite character was Dora, full of creativity and passion, and courage, in her efforts to thwart Hitler, and relieve the suffering of others.
There has been a significant amount of research poured into this book, and Funder worked on it for the seven years after she published Stasiland, in between her other writing and speaking engagements. It is amazing how events that hover in the back of the memory are brought to life through fiction, such as the doomed St Louis cruiser, full of Jewish refugees from Germany, being turned away from Cuba, the US and Canada, and eventually returning to Europe where up to a quarter of the passengers eventually lost their lives in concentration camps.
This book records how much effort went into trying to make the politicians and public of Great Britain aware of the growing threat of Hitler in Germany. The refugees had only mild success, with the commitment of the government to pacifism after the horrors of World War 1 and the deprivations of the Great Depression. However, one figure flitting into the narrative is Winston Churchill, who was an early critic of Hitler and events in Germany.
While the topic seems heavy and reminders of the Holocaust are familiar, the unusual perspective of refugee leftist advocates, and the beauty of the writing, lift the tone of this book. Funder captures the physical essence of Australia beautifully in this description:
Out the window a rosella feasts from a flame tree, sneakers hang-dance on an electric wire. Behind them the earth folds into hills that slope down to kiss that harbour, lazy and alive.
Then there is the way she helps you visualise scenes, for example when Ruth gets out of prison and returns to her parents before fleeing Germany. Her Mother has saved a letter that had arrived three years previously:
“I knew you would come to get it,” Mother said. That small sentence carried the freight of a lifetime’s undeclared love.
Or this commentary on life and memory:
The problem with life is that you can only live it blindly in one direction. Memory has its own ideas; it snatches elements of story from whenever, tries to put them together. It comes back to you from all angles, with all that you later knew, and it gives you the news.
I want to focus finally on a sub-text to the novel, which is the shadowy presence of God. There are all sorts of references throughout the novel: “Perhaps that microphone gives her a direct line to God”, “…it is only twenty times my little span since Christ walked the earth”, “Take this cup from me, Christ said, didn’t he?” Yet Ruth, Dora and Ernst are ostensibly non-believers. Ruth talks about living through “the catastrophes of belief: in God, in the nation, in our leaders”, and she refers to Theodore Lessing who had famously called religion ‘an advertisement for death’.
There is a wonderful line attributed to Toller, recalling a conversation with a rabbi when he was a boy who said: “We must believe in God… because if we don’t we will have to believe in man, and then we will only be disappointed.”
For me, this is the crux of the book, humanity is found wanting in the face of the evil of Hitler. Even in England, with overwhelming evidence provided, nothing is done. In spite of the desire of Ruth and others to deny God, humanity is an insufficient substitute. Toller can recognise grace but is scared to embrace what seems like a religious ideal. However, grace is not just for the religious, it is for all.