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Anna Funder: All That I Am

January 9, 2012

A writer’s regret:  “My memoir is subtly, shamefully self-aggrandising. I put myself at the centre of everything; I never admitted any doubts or fear. (I was cunning, though, telling of isolated childhood cruelties and adult rashness, to give the illusion – not least to myself – of full disclosure.) … I want to see whether, at this late stage of the game, honesty is possible for me.”

This is the German playwright Ernst Toller in 1939 as imagined by Anna Funder in her novel All That I Am, realising that in the autobiography he published five years previously he left out the love of his life – the courageous anti-Nazi activist Dora Fabian. The real Toller may or may not have had such an insight, but in the novel it launches the narrative.

He dictates additional sections to his secretary, who types them up and inserts the loose sheets into the autobiography. Sixty years later the book and its additions find their way to the other person for whom Dora “was the sun”, Ruth Becker, who is 95 and living in Sydney. Ruth in 2001 and Toller in 1939 tell Dora’s story in alternating chapters, a structure that provides two viewpoints on the same people and events.

Funder’s novel is about behaviour in extremis – about extraordinary courage and betrayal – and so continues the themes of Stasiland. In 1933 after Hitler comes to power, activists who have been campaigning against him, including Dora, Ruth and Toller, flee to London and continue their resistance work, trying to alert Britain about what Hitler was really doing, raising money to support dissidents, and printing leaflets to smuggle back to Germany. Dora becomes the best-connected refugee in the city, with contacts like Winston Churchill, who takes to parliament the information about German rearmament that she gathers from her sources, including one in the heart of Hitler’s regime.

One by one, resistance workers outside the Reich are being assassinated, and Dora anticipates the same end for herself, especially when the group begin to be menaced by Gestapo agents operating in London. She could also be deported back to Germany at any time, because political activity by refugees is illegal. But despite her terror she cannot stop her work. Toller, subject to doubts and depression, says, “Dora had a sense of purpose so profound that when I was with her it was impossible to feel lost.” She was one of those people “just the thought of whom makes one behave better”.

Funder’s approach has been questioned – is the book a novel, or a historical reconstruction? Is it legitimate to write fiction about real people so recently alive? I found these criticisms surprising, given how common such fiction is. Funder has written a novel suggested by historical events and people, conveying the atmosphere of that time, and imagining what it could have been like to be those people. In making up both the plot and the characters’ interior lives, she is writing fiction, not  history, but in so doing she helps us to feel and understand that period of history.

The key is imagination, the art neglected by many at the cost of much suffering for others.  In the book Ruth imagines another life for Dora, a long and rich one with a different ending, “as a way of trying to measure the dimensions of loss.” She imaginatively reconstructs how the crime at the heart of the book could have been committed. Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion, she believes: “I cannot imagine what it is like to be another till I float in and out of them, till the imagining sets like memory. How else can we know anyone, love anyone, but by imagining ourselves inside their skin?”

This is what Funder does, imagining herself inside the skin of her characters, and she does it with great love and compassion.

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