In Sydney, Australia in the 1990s, Dora Becker receives a package, containing the writings of a long dead friend. Those writings and the memories of Dora, a German woman now in her nineties, form the narrative structure of this thought provoking novel. I have read a lot of novels and non fiction about this period recently, but All That I Am is more than just another tale about more victims and survivors of Nazism.
Anna Funder’s first book, Stasiland, was a non fiction work about the former DDR (East Germany), the secret police and their victims. This time, she has drawn on true stories and used real people, but All That I Am is presented as a novel, a kind of historical, literary thriller. The characters are a group of German socialists who are forced to become refugees after Hitler’s rise to power.
The novel is in the form of two alternating first person narrators, looking back on their pasts. “Ruth Becker” in the novel, really Ruth Blatt, ended up in Australia, where she lived into her mid 90s and became a friend of the author. The other narrative is by Ernst Toller, a socialist activist and writer writing his memoirs in a New York City hotel room in 1939. The other main characters in the story include Ruth’s husband Hans and her cousin Dora.
As a novel this is the story of a small group of individuals, it doesn’t aim to look at what happened to the German left/far left in the Weimar period, but it is ground which has not been so thoroughly covered in the books about the period I have read, and it made me want to know more about the real people whose stories Anna Funder explores here. I was really interested by the stories of the German revolutionary socialist movement. Ruth was just a child during the First World War, but remembers Dora as already a teenage anti war activist.
Ruth’s initial response to the news of the Nazis being elected is to put up a little red flag. Initial efforts to build effective resistance to Hitler go nowhere though, and the novel becomes a story of the refugee experience, as Ruth, Hans, Dora and Toller move to London. However, even in England, their situation is frustrating and precarious, with strict conditions placed on them as refugees. They are “dislocated and struggling – without our language, often without money, without readership and with no right to work”, and with visas stipulating “no political activities of any kind”. As Ruth says, “We were being offered exile on condition that we were silent about the reason we needed it”. For people whose whole adult lives had been shaped and defined by their political activism, this is hard to imagine.
Worse is to come. This part of the novel takes on a thriller quality, only we know at this point that there isn’t going to be an action hero who can save the day. As they were real people, you can look up what happened to the characters in this novel, but I will not discuss that here, to avoid spoilers.
I found All That I am a very moving novel of love, friendship, politics, mourning and much more besides. Highly recommended.
All That I am by Anna Funder
Published by Penguin Viking, September 2011
Thank you to Penguin Viking for sending me a copy to review for Curious Book Fans.
|Buy book online