2011, 363 p.
No wonder this book is garnering award after award. So far it has won the Indie Award Best Debut Fiction and Book of the Year Award, the Australian Book Industry Award for best literary novel and Book of the Year, the Barbara Jefferis Prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society” and it has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Prime Ministers Prize .
This is Anna Funder’s first foray into fiction, but she does so with one foot still in the non-fiction camp. Her earlier, much acclaimed non-fiction book Stasiland explored individual lives within the pervasive and intrusive panopticon of East German communism. This book traverses similar territory in a fictional mode by imagining the lives of real-life socialist dissidents who sought refuge outside Germany during Hitler’s rise. Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian, Hans Weserman, Berthold Jacob and Ruth Becker are all real-life historical characters, and indeed Funder herself knew, and was friends with, Ruth Becker (by then Ruth Blatt) in Sydney before her death in 2001.
But the book is most certainly fictional in terms of its structure and in its exploration of the emotional space of love, fear and betrayal. It uses the device of two alternating narrators. The first is the elderly Ruth in Sydney, whose memories of the 1930s are bleeding into her present-day life as an increasingly frail post-war immigrant who has had a successful career in teaching, but is sliding towards a lonely and regretful death. A week earlier she had received a manuscript from an American university that had acquired a box of documents written by Ernst Toller, the poet, in 1939 that had been addressed to her. The narrative swings between the present-tense description of an old woman in the drug-induced half world of pain and confusion, and the past-tense reminiscence evoked by this manuscript, received from a time fifty years earlier.
The second narrator is Toller himself, in 1939, in the act of writing that very same manuscript in a hotel room in New York. His narrative, too, swings between the present-tense in describing the act of rewriting an earlier autobiographical manuscript to acknowledge the impact of Dora Fabian and other dissidents in his life, and the past-tense narrative that was to become the document delivered in Sydney sixty years later. He dictates to a young female notetaker, herself wracked with fear for her brother, marooned on the refugee ship the St Louis which was denied entry to Cuba, America and Canada.
This narrative quadruple act is complex, and throughout the book I found myself marvelling at how deftly she managed it. I found her characters thoroughly convincing at the emotional level: in fact, it was only an epigraph by W. H. Auden that marked Part II that stopped me in my tracks with the realization that it was very much based on real-life people. I resisted the temptation to rush off to Google the characters; indeed I have not yet done so (and probably will not do so) because I’m happy for them to exist in the rounded, fleshed out fictional form in my mind. Somehow, to see them rendered into black-and-white again will flatten them somehow. I note, however, that Simon Schama the historian in his review of the book in the Financial Times felt that the “knottily knitted time line snags the narrative at every turn” and that there were “points where the research somehow clots the blood flow of the plot rather than transfusing it with vitality.” Yet he suggested that the real-life Ruth’s later life story, which is sketched only briefly in Funder’s book, is even richer with fictional possibilities, thus wanting to draw her back to real-life again. I don’t agree with him. Schama warns that “the ball and chain of history can hobble the gait of the imagination if the novelist isn’t ruthless about knowing when to cut it loose” and yet I feel that Funder has been completely disciplined (in both senses of the word) by restricting her focus to the political and emotional claustrophobia of the time, instead of paying homage to the historical ‘afterwards’ of her real-life characters.
Yet her book is very much about the historical issue of memory and forgetting. “I am a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting” says Ruth the narrator. “Most people have no imagination. If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so” wrote Ernst Toller. But as Ruth the narrator (and I suspect, Funder the author) says:
Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any….But Toller, great as he was, is not right. It is not that people lack an imagination. It is that they stop themselves using it. Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing? (p. 358)
It is also a book about the weight of an individual against the wider scale of history. At a personal level, we grapple with our measure of those we love-
When you are in love with someone, you cannot see around them, you cannot get their human measure. You cannot see how someone so huge to you, so miraculous and unfathomable, can fit, complete, into that small skin. (p 150)
And yet we ourselves have to think about our own value in the world:
Though it is the hardest thing, to work out one’s weight and heft in the world, to whittle down all that I am and give it a value. (p. 299)
This is a beautifully written book, although there are the odd jarring notes. The awkwardly introduced date of Toller’s narrative was clumsy and heavy-handed, and I don’t think that she handled the authorial problem of bringing her two first-person narratives to a close very well because she had painted herself into a narrative corner.
But in other places, her descriptions are crystal sharp, as for example, in this description of a Weimar nightclub-
The doors of the TicTacToe opened into a floor-length leather curtain drawn against the cold. We parted it. The entry level was on a mezzanine; below us lay a vast, ornate room hollowed out into the earth. I moved to the balcony rail. Pools of light shone on a hundred tables, bright circles into which hands moved, gloved or ungloved, for a drink, to ash a cigarette, touch an arm. The air was filled with trumpet notes and smoke, the chinking sounds of cutlery, laughter, something smashing at the upper bar. At my shoulder a vase of lilies breathed, open-tongued. P. 105
I’m not sure whether this book will win the Miles Franklin, even with the slightly widened criteria that allow an ‘Australian’ sensibility without necessarily being set in Australia. I’m not sure that the Sydney section of the book is a sufficiently sturdy anchor to describe it as ‘Australian’, but I am not cynical enough to think that the Australian section was included only with the Miles Franklin in mind. It’s a beautifully written opening up of the imaginative space around real-life people, and it should be celebrated as such.
Read because: It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin Prize. Also posted on the 2012 Australian Womens Writing Challenge
Sourced from: La Trobe University Library
My rating: 9/10