Anna Funder – All That I Am: A Novel (Penguin, 2011)

Before the annexations and blitzkriegs, before concentration camps, ‘final solutions’ and Zyklon B, respectability and national loyalty determined that one should quietly acquiesce to the rule of the Nazi party. Their colours had been shown, but few foresaw their ruthless ambition and iron determination to actualise them. Among those who did were a band of left-wing dissidents. These writers and activists opposed the new regime and were forced to flee Germany. They found a fragile refuge in London where, continuing their work, they evaded both agents from home and from the hostile British authorities.

Unlike most historical fiction, All That I Am not only concerns historical figures but is narrated by them. Alternative chapters come from the first-person perspective of Ernst Toller, a famous German playwright, and a Jewish photographer named Ruth Becker (who Funder knew personally), both part of the dissident group during Hitler’s rise. The story is told through a series of memories. As the narrators navigate their twilight years an object or a feeling will pull them back to their youth and they are quickly lost in their recollections. Narrating through real people is far more difficult than placing a fictional narrator in the historical setting, and although not seamless this is the best I have seen it done since I, Claudius.

Through Funder’s careful writing the simple, everyday observations of life appear just as remarkable as the shocking events of those troubled times. The characters aren’t just actors in history, but daughters, husbands, employees and cat-owners, people consumed and shaped by the relationships around them. Because of this, the reader feels their apprehension when footsteps follow behind and their relief when they fade away. You come to understand that the frustration of being an unwelcome outsider in a foreign country, surrounded by bewildering manners and customs and reduced to the incompetence of a child, can be as great an ordeal as being targeted made a fugitive for your political ideals.

All That I Am is a tribute to these great men and women who risked their lives, faced overwhelming odds and achieved remarkable things. History is always selective in what it tells and rather than allow these heroes to disappear so soon down the forgotten crevices Funder writes them back into our memory (just as Toller is compelled to rewrite his memoirs to preserve the life of Dora, his co-worker and lover). But the novel also seeks to demonstrate what we might call the banality of heroism. Rather than descending into hagiography, Funder repeatedly lays the stress on the private lives of the characters, where they remain fearful, needy, insecure and even callous or cruel. Toller and Ruth are both seen as lonely souls looking back on their life with regret, seeking understanding and forgiveness rather than applause.

Funder’s previous book, Stasiland, was an exciting and jaw-dropping non-fiction reflection on life in East Germany. While insightful, All That I Am often lets the political events fade into the backdrop and it can be hard to discern fact from embellishment, so it doesn’t produce the same effect as Stasiland. But as a first novel it is certainly worthy of the praise it is receiving.