Interview: Anna Funder, author of All That I Am

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IN SPRING 1935, two women were found dead in an attic flat in Bloomsbury. Both were German refugees, among the first to flee from Hitler, active in the fledgling resistance movement.

A coroner recorded two verdicts of suicide, but many suspect foul play. The file relating to their deaths has now been lost. That’s a gem of a starting point for a novelist, but Anna Funder didn’t begin here. The Australian writer, whose first book, Stasiland, won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2004, might never have discovered the story at all had she not met Ruth Blatt, an elderly German emigré, in Melbourne.

Blatt was a woman with a remarkable story, a political radical in the 1920s and 1930s who fled Germany for London in 1933. Later, she was arrested for trying to smuggle anti-Nazi pamphlets back into Germany and imprisoned for five years. She and Funder became close friends, but it was only after she died in 2001 that Funder researched her story further, learned about the lives of the early exiles and about the two women who died in the attic flat in 1935.

All of this quickly formed the subject of her eagerly awaited second book, and first novel, All That I Am. While Stasiland was a compelling, insightful portrayal of East Germany under the Stasi, a country which had more informants per head of population than Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, in All That I Am, she makes the leap into fiction.

But only just. Almost none of the characters in the book are invented. Funder describes the weaving of the story as “a bit like microsurgery”. “I’ve made up this plot by joining real events, looking closely at them, in a very forensic, pathological examination of what can be known. The one thing you can’t do in non-fiction is get inside someone’s head, but I had to make the emotional story make sense and be congruent with the historical story and with the historical people, suturing all of these people in to what it is possible to know, while at the same time inventing the complete emotional arc. It was brain-breaking work, and I have no intention of writing a novel which is as difficult again!”

Even now, the book long finished, and Funder sitting in a hotel garden in London in the September sunshine, she still seems uneasy.

A former human rights lawyer, she is applying a kind of legal precision to her work, retrospectively self-checking to see whether she could have wronged anyone. Then she chides herself: “Not that anybody will ever know. It’s a private perverse exactitude on my part, it’s like I have to satisfy myself in some way.”

The book is written in two voices: Ruth Becker, an elderly German emigre living in Australia, closely based on Ruth Blatt, and the German playwright Ernst Toller, dictating his memoirs in a New York hotel room as the war begins in Europe. Both narratives focus on the 1930s, crystallising around the character of Dora Fabian, a mercurial, liberated woman who became an organiser of German resistance activities in London. She was also Toller’s assistant, and – a scrap of evidence suggests – his lover.

“When I came across the story of Dora, I was just thunderstruck and irrational and besotted and intrigued. I walked around for three months with Dora in my head. I couldn’t get over her courage, I couldn’t get over her prescience. I knew then I wanted to write [this story]. There was enough of what I knew and loved in Ruth and enough of what I didn’t know and was curious about in order to create a novel in those gaps.

“I actually think that all good writing comes out of love of some kind, I don’t mean of a sentimental kind. I think you have to think that this story has to be told, and that these people have to be celebrated, that you want them to live again in some way.”

It is a period in history almost overlooked, overshadowed by the events which came later. It begins with the Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1919, a shortlived experiment in radical socialism which was brutally crushed. Toller was its leader, then wrote inspirational conscience-filled plays from his jail cell which are now almost unknown (“I did an honours degree in German and Literature and I’d never heard of him,” says Funder). Dora is little more than a footnote in history.

This group of upper-class radicals in Weimar Germany, many of them Jewish, watched Hitler’s rise to power with a kind of amused irony. In the novel, Ruth describes being in the bath listening to the radio when Hitler is appointed Chancellor. She hangs a red flag in the window of her Berlin apartment while the SS men marched in the street below.

Within a few months, she and her husband had 24 hours to flee the country, but in London she became involved in helping helping other refugees and trying to warn the rest of Europe about Hitler’s plans.

“These people are really bell-ringers in a world that wouldn’t listen,” says Funder. “They thought: ‘There is this barbarian right-wing thug and he is ruining all of the cultural institutions of this country, and it will be a place of unchecked power and barbarism,’ and they were absolutely right, though I don’t think they could have imagined everything that would happen.”

She is fascinated by these acts of defiance, the courage of ordinary people which she also discovered in her research for Stasiland.

“It goes against the grain of that kind of received wisdom about humanity, that human beings are capable of such extraordinary courage. People get into this situation where they are going to speak out against tyrannical, dictatorial, unauthorised government, no matter what the cost to them. And they keep doing it, even though it becomes absolutely clear that they’re signing their own death warrant.”

Yet she is equally fascinated by those who don’t stand up, who turn a blind eye to the gathering storm. In the novel, Ruth wonders how she “underestimated … the lure of mindless belonging and purpose”. Dora talks about “some kind of chiliastic enchantment” which led people to follow Hitler. “I really do think that people want to be led, they want to belong, they want to be safe,” says Funder. “Those things are manipulated by politicians. I think there are all kinds of denial that are very interesting.”

Still others resist at first, but crack under the strain, “turn” and become spies themselves, betraying their friends. She has sympathy for them, too. “I really understand that. We can’t all be heroes, we really can’t. I don’t think you know your strengths or your weaknesses till they’re tested properly, we don’t actually know that in advance. “

She believes the two women in the Bloomsbury flat were murdered by Gestapo agents. The German refugees feared that they were being monitored, both by the Nazis and by the British authorities, who could revoke their visas if they were found to be involved in political activities. There was nowhere to turn.

“I had no idea that Hitler was so organised so early as to be knocking off people who had fled, who were already outside of Germany speaking out,” she says But there is evidence that this happened in this period in other European countries. There is nothing to suggest the Gestapo weren’t active in the UK too.

Funder is interested in this not for its uniqueness but for the fact that she suspects similar things happen all over the world, citing the assassination of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died from radioactive poisoning after an encounter in a London restaurant in 2006, as an example. “I was working on this book at the time, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly the same thing.’ I do think there are very similar stories in China, Libya, Burma, various parts of Africa, the same story about what organised power does, and how it warps and accrues more of itself to itself.”

Her interest in Germany, long before she visited the country, came out of her enjoyment of the language and the literature as well as a Cold War teenager’s fascination with what lay behind the Iron Curtain. She studied in Berlin for a period while at Melbourne University, where she graduated with a degree combining German, English Literature and Law, and worked for a time as a human rights lawyer advising the Australian Government. “I thought the law was going to give me a framework to think about social justice issues or philosophies of justice.”

But it didn’t, and she returned to her first love, writing. She had planned to write Stasiland as a novel, she says, but who would have believed it? A police force that steals people’s underwear so they could teach sniffer dogs to recognise their scent? “The reality was more extraordinary than anything I could have made up. People think you have to exaggerate things to make a good story, I don’t think that’s true, I think you have to pull back.”

The best way she has found to explain her interest in Germany as a writer is by talking about Antz, a favourite movie of her three children.

“If you were pitching this movie to Hollywood, you wouldn’t say: ‘I want to make a movie about an ant colony, it’s got this fantastic hierarchy, there’s a queen ant and all these worker ants and they’ve got to save up all this food for the winter … You’d say: ‘There’s this little ant, he’s a klutz, he ruins the food supply, he falls in love, he gets the girl, he saves the colony’. The fact that it’s about ants is neither here not there. I’m interested in these human stories of presience and resistance and courage and betrayal and love and failure to love – all the things that make us human. Germany is my ant colony.”

l All That I Am by Anna Funder is published by Viking, £16.99.