A story of courage and conscience. That's how Australian writer Anna Funder describes her latest novel “All That I Am', set in the Germany ofthe 1930s

“Iam not interested in suffering. My books are not about suffering. They are about resistance,” said Anna Funder. Author of the international non-fiction bestseller “Stasiland”, which won the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize and was published in 20 countries and translated into 16 languages, Anna was in town on her way back from the Hay Festival in Kerala.

At the Taj Connemara, ‘In Conversation' with Jennifer Arul and Andrew Jackson, an Australian poet currently in residence at the University of Madras, she discussed “Stasiland” and her new book, “All That I Am” in an event hosted by The Australian Consulate General.

Based on interviews

Despite being Australian, both Anna's books revolve around Germany. “Stasiland” is based on interviews with people who lived under the totalitarian East German regime, including members of the ex-secret police, (the Stasi). “All That I Am” is set in Germany in the 1930s and contemporary Australia. “I studied in West Berlin for a year from 1987 to 88, before the Berlin wall fell. I was 20 years old,” says Anna explaining why Germany had such a profound influence on her. “I met artists and writers who had been exiled from East Berlin. It made me incredibly curious to meet more people. They were living in the West, but on the other side of the wall they had friends, past lives, and sometimes children…”

So she went back to Berlin after the wall fell and met people who had tried to resist the Stasi regime. “I wanted to interview the ordinary people, who were actually extraordinary people.” Like 16-year-old Miriam who tried to break through the iron curtain, to climb the wall at night, sneaking into Berlin, an unfamiliar city, and then crawling on all fours to avoid being seen by the guards. “I also wanted to speak to former Stasi men. This was in the 90s, and I was warned no one would talk to me. They had all gone underground, disguised themselves in fancy jackets.”

Undeterred, Anna put a classified ad in the newspaper: “Australian writer seeks Stasi men.” Her phone rang incessantly. “I got calls from very self important Stasi men. They spoke about how communism was better than capitalism, how it made the world more equal.” They also turned out to be surprisingly ordinary. “It's only in the movies that the bad guys look like bad guys. In the 20th Century, the world's worst evils were executed by men in suits sitting at desks.” And yes, it was always men. “The Stasi was an organisation of men. There were no women in the office — other than informers and secretaries. It was very, sort of, macho.”

Anna talks of how the system swallowed people. “People who were not really evil got into a bureaucratic web.” That's why, she says, she has a problem with the popular German movie ‘The Lives Of Others.' “I loved the movie, watched it twice, cried both times. But it's based on a fundamental lie. There was never a Stasi man who tried to save anyone. There couldn't have been. Any operator had a whole series of people above him checking what he was doing...”

An advantage

She says being Australian also proved to be an unexpected advantage since she was coming from a neutral space. “Sometimes it's easier for an outsider to write a story about a difficult history… It also allowed me to ask incredibly basic questions. I would be honoured to get answers that went back a full century.”

Her main interest, she says, is in conscience and courage, which is why her second book follows a similar theme. “‘All That I Am' is fiction, but most of the characters in it are based on real life. A lot of good fiction happens in the gap of what we know and what we imagine…”

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