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Rethinking history.

January 25, 2012

I admit it: historical fiction just isn’t my thing. I love Hilary Mantel, but reading Wolf Hall took me forever and felt like homework: there I was again in grade six history class, desperately trying to remember Henry VIII’s wives in the right order.

So, even though Anna Funder’s Stasiland is one of my favourite books of recent years, I was maybe a tiny bit disappointed when I discovered that her first novel—2011’s All That I Am—is a fictionalised account of real Jewish German revolutionaries and their fruitless fight against Hitler in the years immediately preceding World War II.

But on the strength of Stasiland, which got me interested in a period of recent German history I knew almost nothing about, I swallowed my historical fiction prejudice and picked up All That I Am. This turned out to be an extremely good decision.

All That I Am opens in 1933, when Ruth Becker lies in the bathtub of her Berlin apartment and hears ‘waves of happy cheering’ drifting up from the streets below as news spreads that Hitler has been sworn in as Chancellor.

For Ruth and her left-wing socialist circle—her husband, journalist Hans Wesemann, her cousin Dora Fabian, and the playwright Ernst Toller—it is the beginning of the end. They see the writing on the wall and flee Germany while they still can, carrying out undercover resistance work against the Nazis as refugees in London.

Ruth and Toller narrate All That I Am from different points in time: Ruth is now an old woman near death in present-day Sydney, slipping deeper into vivid recollections of her revolutionary past; Toller is a refugee in New York in 1939, filling in the gaps of his autobiography, I Was a German, with his patient secretary. The perspectives and experiences of these two central characters converge and diverge, shaping an affecting and powerful story of human strength and weakness in the face of political terror, and the emotional and moral cost of political conviction and action.

At the centre of Ruth’s and Toller’s memories is Dora, a woman whose bravery seems inversely proportionate to her tiny stature. Toller’s lover and Ruth’s beloved friend and confidante, Dora fought harder than anyone for the cause, smuggling witnesses prepared to testify against Hitler’s regime out of Germany, and leaking information to the British press from a source high up in Nazi ranks. She chews her nails to pieces, trails cigarette smoke, and takes a string of lovers; for Toller, ‘every other woman was less than real.’

Funder’s narrative is beautifully executed, an eloquent tapestry of fact and fiction that builds to a tense and tragic conclusion, and she inhabits her characters with assurance and grace. As an old woman, Ruth is vaguely cantankerous—she insists on being addressed as Dr Becker—and she has a wonderfully sardonic lack of illusion about her aging body and mind: ‘I boil the kettle and take care to pour the water into the cup, not the tin of International Roast.’ The young Ruth, a refugee whose uncertain new life in London is fraught with urgency and fear, finds herself awed by Dora’s bravery, and haunted by suspicions that she cannot bear to voice. But she too is brave—the real Ruth paid for her actions with five years of solitary confinement in Germany.

Toller is a complex and melancholy figure—by 1939, he is plagued by demons and regrets. Having left Dora out of his 1933 autobiography, he decides that he must write her back in; since Dora, who worked on the initial version of the book with him, ‘thought I left out the bitterest and most basic emotions,’ he comes to realise ‘the deceit of words, how in saying everything one can say nothing at all.’ Dora’s story belongs alongside his, because ‘without her I was only half the man, and half the writer.’

The emotional authenticity of Funder’s characters gives the book its narrative power: they are not simply figures from history, or symbols of a cause and time, but real people, with weaknesses and uncertainties that undercut their heroism. This sense of realism adds to the current of foreboding and melancholy that lies beneath Funder’s elegant prose: even those with only a vague knowledge of European history will know that part of what Ruth and her friends fought so hard to avoid happened when war finally broke out in 1939.

But All That I Am isn’t a bleak book—for Funder to reclaim these stories from the archives of history and breathe narrative life into them is to honour the efforts of those like Ruth, who fought so hard for their beliefs. And Funder finds glimmers of wry humour in even the grimmest situations: Wolfram Wolf, a rather condescending academic with whom Dora has a fling in London, has a superiority of such ‘form and shape’ that ‘we could have pulled up an extra chair for it.’

I don’t read much historical fiction, but surely the finest kind is just like this: a narrative that offsets powerful historic truth with the fine needlepoint of human drama and moral frailty. This, in All That I Am, is what makes 1930s Europe feel both worlds away and affectingly close. Ruth Becker says it better than I ever could: ‘everything we have seen and everyone we have known goes into us and constitutes us, whether we like it or not. We are linked together in a pattern we cannot see and whose effects we cannot know. One slub here, a dropped stitch there, a bump encounter in that place, and the whole fabric will be different once it is woven.’

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