Sunday, 29 November 2009

Stasiland

Stasiland

Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall

by Anna Funder

London: Granta 2003

Now that the events marking the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall are dying down, I thought I would remind myself just what it is we have been celebrating. Funder's first person narrative about seeking out the victims and perpetrators of total state control in the former GDR (DDR) is an antidote to the indifference that sets in from seeing black and white footage of the wall going up for the umpteenth time. It also explains the ecstasy in the faces of those filmed pouring into West Berlin when the regime finally came crashing down.

Her story begins with her visit to the volunteer-run Stasi museum in the Runde Ecke building in Leipzig. The exhibits, neatly labelled in glass cases, are strange, unfathomable - comical even; the fake wigs and moustaches for disguising Stasi spies, the empty jars that once contained smell samples taken from suspects, the microphones hidden in handbags. The woman who runs the museum perhaps notices Funder's confusion and knows how to make sense of these artefacts from a lost land. She tells Funder about Miriam, who's husband died during Stasi interrogation, supposedly by hanging himself, though the suspicion is that he died at their hands and that the funeral was a charade, perhaps even involving an empty coffin. Funder decides she must speak with this Miriam, and the book is primarily Miriam's story.

Along the way she uncovers many other personal tragedies; it is almost as if everyone has a dreadful tale, including her landlady, if you could just get them to speak. Ay, and there's the rub, because there seems to her to be a collective amnesia, a deep level of denial, in everyone from former East and West. Though at the time of starting to write (1996) these events happened only a few years before, already it was becoming like ancient history. Not relevant any more. Best forgotten. But as one victim explains why he just lives from day to day, nobody foresaw The Wall going up in 1961, and no-one expected it just as suddenly coming down in '89. Things might change again tomorrow, so make the most of your freedom whilst you have it.

Miriam's tale spans the book and is truly heart-rendering. A soul scarred for life by the brutality and callousness of a totalitarian regime is laid bare before us. A beautiful, innocent butterfly who has had a wing ripped off by an anonymous gloved hand. And as the book unfolds, similar tales are bravely revealed by ordinary folks who have been subjected to extra-ordinary torture.

Funder interviews people from the other side of the divide; the watchers and manipulators as well as those whose lives they crippled or destroyed. This is not, cannot be, an objective assessment. Funder is writing first-person all along, sharing her thoughts and emotions with us, becoming our proxy within the narrative. She is not giving a scientifically methodical historical analysis, she is engaging us with the emotions of someone whose eyes are being opened to a past she barely imagined. So, the ex-Stasi men (all men) come over as unrepentant, bitter, wishing The Wall had never come down. Either that or finding that they are well suited post Wende to a job selling insurance or telemarketing. However, her book is also lacking in the stories of the innocents who just got on with their lives without snooping on their neghbours. And hey (don't shout it too loud) but maybe they actually agreed with the principles of Socialism, and looked at the West and really did believe that Capitalism wasn't the perfect system it's cracked up to be.

The title of this book is 'Stasiland', and the allusion is to the ridiculous illogicality of Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. But the work of fiction more fitting here is surely Kafka's 'The Trial', because there is a warped logic to the oppression; it's just no-one tells you the rules by which to behave, or what you are accused of, or when you may be imprisoned, or how you can prove your innocence. The GDR was a country with more people spying on each other - either directly employed to do so, or paid informers who might be your boss or co-worker or a member of your family - than any other regime in history. By the end of the GDR, it was becoming farcical: so many members of some dissident organisations were Stasi infiltrators that it looked like the organisations were much more powerful in numbers than they actually were. And the brutality of what the State could get away with doing to personal lives is stomach-churning. The chapter on the Stasi prison of Hohenschönhausen is almost unreadable.

The book is not without its flaws though. It is written in the style of a piece of fiction, and sometimes you wonder if it is fiction. Funder is apt to pepper her narrative with descriptions and incidental details that distract from the main points. Do we care what colour the wallpaper was in the cell? Or should we be concentrating on the fact that the prisoner had only a small three-legged stool to sit on 24 hours? And to be frank, do we really care about Funder's description of the events of her life, when by comparison with the lives of her subjects they seem trivial concerns, petty even? As someone once advised me about writing a gig review, the readers don't want to know how you and your girlfriend got to the venue and how your moped broke down on the way, they want to know how the band looked and performed. Maybe Funder felt that Alice in Stasiland couldn't have done without its Alice.

Quibbles aside, this is a moving and insightful book. One that should be on the reading list of anyone who wonders what all the fuss is about with The Wall coming down. For someone who lives in Berlin it also makes you look twice at your fellow S-Bahn travellers, and make you wonder what kind of tales they could tell. And if the woman at the till in Netto is a bit short with you when you're not quick with finding your change, just ponder for a moment if she ever tried to scale the wall as a teenager, or lost a dying son because she couldn't travel West for medicine.


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