Winner of the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, All that I Am is a perfect read for the holidays. It is a beautifully written and, for the most part, compelling story based on a real group of leftist and mainly Jewish German dissidents who, from both within Germany and then, later, from exile in the UK in the lead-up to WWII, fought to bring to the attention of the world the rise of tyranny under Hitler.
Told from two points-of-view (POV), it proves the old adage that survivors write history. Ruth Becker, based on Ruth Blatt, a real person who Funder knew, is a survivor. An elderly woman living in Bondi, Sydney in the ‘present day’ of 2002, she’s struggling with what appears to be Alzheimer’s. Recent memories are fading while old memories are coming to the surface. Alloyed to her physical condition is the arrival of an annotated autobiographical manuscript of Ernst Toller’s I was a German.
It is the empty-hearted yet ‘wunderkind’ playwright Toller, a WWI veteran and conscience of the German people, who provides the second POV. He is similarly looking back on past events, more out of a sense of regret at his actions, from New York in 1939. He is re-drafting I was a German, this time including the woman he loved and used to work for him, Ruth’s cousin Dora Fabian, who did so much to save Toller’s work after the Nazis rose to power. He wants ‘to see whether, at this late stage of the game, honesty is possible for me.’ At the end of his first chapter he thinks: ‘I will tell it all. I will bring Dora back, and I will make her live in this room.’
It’s a struggle for Toller. Though he had relationships with other women, he feels only half a man without Dora. In a wonderful image, he compares their love to ‘a carpenter’s spirit level, each of us holding an end up so hard, fighting to keep that trembling bubble alive.’
Dora is the fulcrum around which the other characters pivot. A strategic thinker with a sharp intellect, she’s a no-nonsense woman of incredible bravery. Some readers have suggested her character is almost too idealised. Well, pressure changes people; like a furnace, it burns some, melts some and forges others. And there is no greater pressure than that faced in an unseen war, when freedom is at stake. Dora is forged into a steely operative. Others wilt.
More naïve than Dora, Ruth is married to Hans, a crack reporter who writes scathing satirical articles about Hitler in the German press before the Nazis start to claim the freedoms that we all hold so dear. After a short prologue that sets-up the stakes of the story—retelling the events of the day Hitler is confirmed as the new Chancellor—we find Ruth visiting her doctor in Bondi Junction in 2002. Presented with the possibility of her condition eventually taking her sight, she thinks:
I had very good eyes once. Though it’s another thing to say what I saw. In my experience, it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not to see it at all.
This is a lovely double foreshadowing of what’s to come. Dora and the group do see what’s happening with Hitler, whereas the rest of the world, at least on the surface, doesn’t sense what’s to come. But there is a more personal failing that Ruth’s referring to, a betrayal of their group by one of its members that she didn’t see coming, even when Dora began to voice her suspicions.
We see the ‘emergency’ of the Reichstag fire, arranged by the Nazis, which enabled Hitler to claim totalitarian powers. In its wake is the persecution that ‘sent fifty-five thousand Germans into exile – some two thousand writers and artists among them.’ This exodus predates ‘the mass of Jews [that] came later’, those lucky ones who got out before the extermination camps began to take their heavy toll. Ruth and Hans, Dora and Toller, as well as others are among those who get out, but they leave behind others, including family and friends.
The stakes are gradually raised. Dora continues to receive accurate information from German contacts on the accumulation of arms, components for fighter planes and proof that Hitler is circumventing the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which restricts the number of men the German army is allowed. Hitler makes the exiles stateless and poor by decree then begins to send hit-squads after them. There is a cracking scene in which two Nazi operatives come into Dora and Ruth’s flat posing as Scotland Yard detectives replete with a warrant to search their home. Their presentation, accents and documentation make Ruth believe their story. Dora sees through them, asking to see the search warrant, and she sees the one clue that gives them away, something that a true Brit would not have written. It’s spellbinding stuff.
Toller is friends with the renowned poet WH Auden. There is a lovely scene between them in Toller’s New York hotel room. Toller is a bound to bouts of severe depression. He says to Auden: ‘It’s a strange pathology, don’t you think, … to want to be something other than what you are?’ Auden replies, ‘It’s the same old thing, isn’t it? … All that we are not stares back at all that we are.’
This sense of identity underpins everyone’s actions. Forced into exile in London, they find themselves in a different landscape altogether: that of the refugee whose visas are predicated on the provision that they do not continue their political activities, the very thing that defines them, the very thing that is increasingly necessary as Hitler builds his armed forces for the war that will come.
They now have two overt enemies: first, the growing reach of the gestapo, unafraid to execute resistance members wherever they may be; and second, Scotland Yard as representatives of the British who in the early 1930s are unwilling to rock the boat with ‘Mr’ Hitler. Moreover, there is a covert enemy that begins to germinate: the one that lies within, the one that personifies Auden’s battle between what a person is not and what they are.
In this sense All that I Am is more than a story of the courage, allegiances and betrayals that espionage entails. It’s a story of how love blinds; and a story of loss, of trying to rediscover that part of you that makes you all that you are when external events and then time threaten to lever truths from your grasp. It’s a powerful story with much wisdom that works on many levels, from the slow-burn psychological thriller to the investigation of the human condition in the most pressurised circumstances.
Questions have been raised about whether the story would work better as non-fiction. Most characters were real people, while others were based on real people. I haven’t read Funder’s acclaimed Stasiland, a work of non-fiction that explores similar themes of the individual versus tyrannical power, which received praise for its narrative inventiveness. Some of those who heaped this kind of praise now complain about a work of fiction not being creative enough! Having not read Stasiland, I was free to approach All that I Am on its own terms. To me, it’s a superb re-imagining of past events that speaks to peoples of all persuasions, nationalities and times. I can’t say whether it would have worked better as non-fiction, but it certainly works as fiction.
The more interesting issue to my mind is it winning the Miles Franklin Award. The judges have taken an expansive view of the prize’s requirement that the winner ‘present Australian life in any of its phases’, that pesky clause that has seen past works with loose connections to Australia ruled out of contention. Ruth narrates from the prism of modern Bondi, and so it deals with a phase of Australian life. But it does so in a limited manner; the overwhelming majority of the story occurs in Europe. I don’t have a problem with the expansionist stance, though I wonder whether the judges were under pressure to be more inclusive. It beat some strong competition, that’s for sure, with the judges split between Funder and Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light. For once, the woman won!
My only qualms come with some minor pacing issues in the middle, and the final chapter. I won’t spoil things for those of you yet to read it, and it is a minor thing quickly forgotten, but there is a POV switch there that is very awkward and could have been avoided.
Otherwise, All that I Am is enthralling.
This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.
All that I Am by Anna Funder
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)