Saturday, 6 October 2012

ALL THAT I AM by Anna Funder

Hamish Hamilton, 2011, 369 pages, $24.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

‘Hitler’s hatred began with us’, says the German playwright, Ernst Toller (in Anna Funder’s historical novel, All That I Am) of the revolutionary socialists and pacifists who, through mutiny and general strike brought the first world war to an end for Germany in 1918.

Toller (writer, socialist leader and Jew), Dora Fabian (feminist and Toller’s lover), Ruth Wesemann (Dora’s cousin) and Hans Wesemann (Ruth’s husband and journalist) were all radicals, members of Germany’s Independent Social Democratic Party, a left-wing split from the formerly Marxist but now safely respectable Social Democratic Party).  They believed their post-war revolution ‘would change autocratic, war-mongering Germany forever’ and usher in ‘freedoms of every kind’.

Hope remained even after the Social Democrats had mobilised troops, disaffected war veterans and the Nazi Frei Korps to bloodily crush the revolt, and even endured after Hitler took power in 1933.  Full comprehension of what Hitler had in store for his opponents, however, eventually dawned on them and arrest, interrogation, jail and exile followed.

Troubles dogged the exiles in their London flat where they trod the fine line between anti-fascist resistance and the British government’s shameful prohibition on refugees engaging in political activities under the threat of sending them back to Nazi Germany and certain death.  Nazi political police hit-squads also stalked them and, under pressure of harm to themselves or family, betrayal looms.  One betrays ‘for money and protection’, one suicides and others are murdered by the Gestapo.  Ruth escapes, winding up in Bondi Junction, Australia.

Based closely on real characters and events, Funder’s debut, Miles Franklin Award-winning novel was sparked by an oral history she recorded with the real Ruth (Ruth Blatt), who taught Funder’s German teacher the German language.  Funder’s novel resurrects the courage of those who fought for the ‘Other Germany’ and it wraps their undoubted bravery (and occasional failure) in  steadily building dramatic tension.

As with Funder’s book on East Germany (Stasiland), however, the political fails to reach the same high standards as the literary.  Politics was crucial to stopping the rise of Hitler but the reasons for the failure of what Funder’s characters want (an anti-Nazi ‘Three-Fold Red Front’ of ‘the Social Democrats, the Communists and us’) are not explored and are contradicted by facile, throw-away lines which equate revolutionary left with reactionary right (all are repressive jailers, all are anti-democrats, all are ‘deceivers of the working class’).  This literary glibness gives no right of reply to Germany’s Marxists, does not offer any analysis of how Stalinism perverted their choices, and misses the chance to tease out the ideological and strategic turmoil, and final tragic disunity, of the German anti-Nazi left.

Funder’s political preference is for the left-liberal radical reformism of her main characters.  Her social ideal is Australian ‘decency’.  There might be room for questioning that ‘decency’, however, as Funder herself deplored, in an interview, the context that “I was writing this as children seeking refuge here were being locked up indefinitely in prison camps in our suburbs”, the victims of a ‘moral blindness’ which is the crux of Funder’s novel.

Although All That I Am veers more towards the psychological thriller than the artistic interweaving of the political and the personal, Funder’s literary honouring of the “extraordinary courage” of “otherwise forgotten” people “who bravely resist authoritarian powers” is well served by her most worthy novel.

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