by Betsy Burton
Once in a while a novel comes along that rocks your world. All That I Am rocked mine. I picked it up expecting a WWII thriller and in terms of suspense and believability it’s exactly that. But it’s also much more than just that. It begins in Berlin in the ‘20s. The glamorous and decadent Weimer Republic is in full swing, feminism is a proclaimed ideal, the left is on the ascendant, and their journalists skewer the nascent Nazi movement mercilessly. Hans is one such journalist. And when 18-year-old budding photographer Ruth Becker visits her cousin Dora, the three friends, Hans, Ruth, and Dora, work in tandem to secure the release of a political prisoner, Ernst Toller.
Wait a minute, Ernst Toller, I think. I know that name. Toller has a voice in the book, as do Ruth and Dora, and as I read on, as Toller meets Auden I’m sure I’ve remembered correctly. Toller was a famous intellectual, a poet and playwright, bitterly anti-fascist, friend of Auden, Erika Mann, and other intellectuals of the time. And suddenly I’m not just reading a thriller. If Toller is real, then so, presumably, is Dora. And Ruth. And Hans.
I flip to the Afterword and it’s true—they were real. The action isn’t plot manipulation in an effort to create suspense. All of this actually happened. All at once I’m above as well as in the narrative, bearing witness. But why this reaction? I’ve read plenty of so-called historical fiction before. What makes this seem so different?
The Nazis come to power and Toller is exiled. Dora, displaying breathtaking bravery, rescues his manuscript and his papers. Hans and Ruth are by now married and they, too, are ordered to leave. And so we get a picture of German émigrés who have fled to London in the early ‘30s and who are trying desperately to convince a disbelieving country—a disbelieving world—of the evils of Nazism, all three taking unbelievable risks to do so. In their respective voices we hear the boundless courage and determination of Dora, the deeply intellectual and as deeply depressed world view of Toller, the confusion and growing awareness of the observer, photographer Ruth, as she watches those she loves struggle with their fear and their inner demons, struggle with the closer and closer incursions of the Nazis on their London haven while the world remains willfully blind. What might, in a typical thriller, be predictable, becomes, in this slow, lethal unlayering of character, both inevitable and unbearable.
Perhaps herein lies the answer to my question about the difference between mere historical fiction and the act of bearing witness. Because bearing witness is more than just seeing—as Toller himself says, it is an act of imagination. One that creates understanding. Funder has, in All That I Am, wrested four characters from history, in the process pulling us back and forth from their realities to their memories so convincingly that the reader knows all from the inside, is witness to what they bear, what they can no longer bear, and what it makes of them. Oh, suspense, suspicion, abound, but All That I Am is more than merely spellbinding. Like Hillary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall, Funder’s new book is not just a novel or thriller, and is also far more than mere history. Because thanks to the characters she’s brought to life, and to the opportunity she’s granted us to bear witness to their lives, we understand our own in a different way, understand history in a new way.
Anna Funder is an Australian write who grew up in Melbourne and worked as an international lawyer and in public relations for a German overseas television service in Berlin. Her first book, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, won the UK’s most prestigious award for nonfiction, The Samuel Johnson Prize.
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