Once in a while a remarkable debut in fiction comes along. All That I Am is one of these books. Set during the rise of Nazi occupation of Germany in the late 1920s, Anna Funder tells the true story of exiled revolutionaries by breathing life into a cast of real and invented characters as they grapple with love, betrayal and loss.
Funder has already been praised for her moving insights into the personal experience of war. All That I Am won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary award earlier this year, while her first book, Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall, won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize.
In her new novel, the story spans almost a century, pieced together by the narrative accounts of Ruth and Toller. For Ruth, an elderly woman living alone in Sydney, the events are recalled through a series of disjointed memories; for Toller (based on Ernst Toller, the prominent left-wing playwright), the plight against the Nazis embodies his entire life’s purpose. Their stories converge on Dora Fabian, a member of the Independent Social Democrats since the age of fourteen, and the headstrong leader that cements the group of revolutionaries together with the mission of bringing global attention to their cause.
As Hitler comes to power, Dora provides the coming of age direction that the sheltered cousin Ruth craves, introducing Ruth to the wonders of the adult world and those who inhabit it— the charismatic journalist Hans Wasserman and Berthold Jacob, a radical pacifist intent on thwarting the war. Ruth has unique insight into what drives Dora. “Grief is the extension of love” she reflects at one instance, “and I believe Dora, at eighteen, took what she felt for her father into politics.”
Dora’s purpose is infectious. “I see in Dora something I know in myself – the sense of holding one’s life in one’s palm, to do as one likes,” says Toller, who takes her as a lover perhaps more because of her strong willed spirit than attractiveness.
On the 28th of February 1933, Hitler passes the Reichstag Fire Decree, permitting arrests without warrant, closing newspapers and banning political meetings. Thousands of Anti-Hitler activists are targeted and held in protective custody. Before the Nazis can get their hands on Toller’s writing, Dora hides it away while Ruth and Hans (now married) pose as holidaymakers traveling through Paris, Calais and onto London.
While exiled across Europe they plan to publish a newspaper that will combat Nazi propaganda, but tensions soon arise. “If Stockholm syndrome describes a prisoner falling in love with her jailer, there should be a name for how a cause cements two people, masks their differences as secondary to the purpose at hand,” says Ruth, reflecting on the course of events that are rapidly unfolding.
In London, Ruth and Hans face expected struggles. While she gets by on English learned in school, Hans finds it impossible to fit in— his sense of identity lost along with the outlet for his writing. London is, “Businessmen in suits and bowler hats dressed to disguise the human underneath, signs of individuality restricted to the pattern and color of their ties.” Funder paints a vividly real picture of the cultural alienation that they would have experienced in Britain during this time, where, as Ruth and Hans discover, excessive politeness is not warmth but instead designed to keep others at a distance.
The German Government pressured the Brits to prevent dissidents abroad from publishing and attending public events. Iconoclasts such as Theodor Lessing were shot dead in Czechoslovakia while lists were published denationalizing political opponents. In Funder’s story, Toller and Bertie’s names are on the list, sending a clear message that even beyond its borders they cannot escape Nazi rule. Ruth reflects:
For some reason it is hard to fear what you see in front of you— boys in uniform led by a rapid brilliantine vendor. Fear thrives better on the unseen, because we do not want to think we are afraid of something we also find laughable.
Under the hardest circumstances the greatest human character flaws are evident. Despite knowing that they are being hunted, Dora continues on with their objective to expose the German government’s actions while Hans becomes gripped with fear. He becomes estranged from Ruth and jealous of Dora, whom he accuses of keeping secretive documents locked in cupboards. The differences between Dora and Hans are highlighted by their mistrust for one another, which we ultimately discover is not unfounded.
Funder’s skill at conjuring these dynamics through compelling prose, characterization, and narrative highlights the gamut of human personalities among us— the leaders, followers and outcasts—and how they steer the lives of those around them, and in some cases, even the course of history. There are the Dora Fabians, symbols of the modern power woman, and then there are those that are driven from groups, sometimes, in the case of characters like Hans Wasserman, seemingly by their own will.
Funder has struck a chord with today’s readers by showing us a mirror of our own truths. In her exploration of a gravely significant period in modern history, All That I Am reads as a cautionary tale about human potential. It is here too that the layered meaning of the book’s title becomes clear: we are not only the product of our own direction in life, but forever at the whim— good and bad— of those around us.