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The Lost Worlds

06.16.2003 | BOOKS

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
by Anna Funder
Granta Books, 2003

"I am hungover and steer myself like a car through the crowds at Alexanderplatz station. Several times I miscalculate my width, scraping into a bin, and an advertising billboard. Tomorrow bruises will develop on my skin, like a picture from a negative."

And so we begin. Caught inside a "headspace." Having trouble with our borders, as if the damaged compass of our narrator will map its own unpleasant realities across us the further as we move into her story. Bruises of another kind.

In the company of the Australian writer Anna Funder words have a cool poeticism and metaphoric sharpness that prick deep, reflective emotions inside the reader. It is the language of ice, winter, enclosure, and, of course, death.

So it is that you don't just browse through the Stasiland's pages on some idiosyncratic tour of present-day, techno-grooving Berlin (as the sexy cover art for the Australian edition might suggest); instead you pass through a netherworld of bad historical memories and the damaged lives that still inhabit it.

With a fearlessness that seems guileless for someone so perceptive, as if Funder has never been truly hurt or endangered before, the author dives into the history of the laughably named "German Democratic Republic" and its former security force, "the Stasi", whose surveillance culture dominated East Germany during Communist rule and continues to haunt many of its populace today. She does this simply by posting an advertisement in the local paper "seeking former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators for interview." It is the opening act on the proverbial can of worms.

"People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head," Funder writes. "I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in Stasi men's minds as something they hope one day might come again, and in their victims' minds too, as a terrifying possibility."

Stasi headquarters was known as "the House of One Thousand Eyes." Funder explains, "At the end, the Stasi had 97,000 employees--more than enough to oversee a country of seventeen million people. But it also had 173,000 informers among the population. In Hitler's Third Reich it is estimated that there was one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens, and in Stalin's USSR there was one KGB agent for every 5830 people. In the GDR there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informers are included, some estimates have put the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens."

In this kind of world, secrecy and surveillance were not without their bureaucratic absurdity. At one point Funder cites a Stasi file note from 1989, the year the Wall finally fell, in which "a young lieutenant alerted his superiors to the fact there were so many informers in church opposition groups at demonstrations they were making these groups appear stronger than they really were. In one of the most beautiful ironies I have ever seen, he dutifully noted that it appeared that, by having swelled the ranks of the opposition, the Stasi was giving the people heart to keep demonstrating against them."

The preying density, the absolute complicity of it all, leads Funder through a world of broken and repressed lives that no shorthand summary can do justice to: a mother separated from a critically ill son by the building of the Wall in 1961; a budding young linguist denied a career, then a love life, and finally the ability to love, by the encroaching thuggery of the State; a maverick rock star refused his public existence by the annulling force of the security apparatus. You meet them all in Funder's strangely permeable company; feel something of their lost quality as one might feel the hurt of familiars. At one point Funder admits, "No one can ever tote up life's events and calculate the damages; a table of maims for the soul." But in Stasiland she most certainly tries.

Beyond the victims she speaks to collaborators, propagandists, apologists and people who felt they were just doing their job, as well as Stasi men still living a secret life, still absorbed in the possibility of another turning point back into history: a nostalgia for the ice age of totalitarianism that is surprisingly prevalent beneath the surface of east German life today. I'd argue the successes of Le Pen in France, let alone the mood beneath the regimes of China and Russia, suggest this mood is not so delusional--or exclusively Teutonic in flavour.

Funder certainly gives it chilly credence here. She visits office spaces and torture rooms, has murky assignations with Stasi men at bars and churches and curtain-drawn homes, places that emanate a banal evil all their own. Human coldness is manifest in the architecture around her, in bereft public spaces, even an empty chair. Everything feels soiled.

Finally she meets "the puzzle women in Nuremburg" who seek to piece back together the shredded documents of the most bureaucratized police state the world has ever known, the stories of lives that were destroyed--often covertly--by the Stasi: thickly plotted "mysteries" of lost jobs, suicide, murder and divorce, all puppet-pulled from invisible strings above people's heads. Indeed many of the victims Funder meets exist themselves in fragments and gaps, as unrestored to meaning as the shredded dossiers and files on their lives. Never to be put back together again.

One of the most interesting themes to Stasiland is the way "many people withdrew into what they called "internal emigration." They sheltered their secret inner lives in an attempt to keep something of themselves from the authorities."

For Funder's young and beautiful landlady Julia this defensive response has become a prison of its own. "It's the total surveillance that damaged me the worst," Julia confesses to her in one of the many startling set-pieces of the book, a kitchen scene choking with regret and claustrophobia. "I know how far people will transgress over your boundaries--until you have no private sphere left at all. And I think that is a terrible knowledge to have... That's probably why I react so extremely so approaches from men and so on. I experience them as another invasion of my intimate sphere."

On that masculine point it's interesting to reflect that the GDR had the world's oldest leaders at the time the Wall was brought down and the Communist regime finally collapsed. Julia speaks of her earlier dreams that they would all eventually die off, though later she discovered they were injecting themselves with sheep cells, taking oxygen, doing anything to prolong their creepy grip on power. A female cleaner attending to the old Stasi headquarters--now a museum--speaks of how when she first arrived all the rooms emanated "the smell of old men."

One feels in these irksome descriptions--along with the spidery quality beneath Funder's own encounters with aging Stasi men--the incontinency and anxiety of this culture at its very end, its repulsive dankness and needy aggression. If there is meta-psychology to the book, it's a view of the state as a people held tight in daddy's oppressive fist. It's this perspective that leads me to wonder if only a woman could fully negotiate and sensitize the political mystery of totalitarianism in the manner Funder has achieved. But perhaps that's being way too Freudian and deterministic for such brilliant inquiry into the soul of a nation at its lowest depths.

By the end of Stasiland Funder is weighted by the sorrows she has heard and the death of her own mother back in Australia. Grief comes down upon her "like a cage." She leaves Germany with no great wisdoms to offer, but when she returns almost three years later it is spring, not the winter she lived through. Berlin is now "green, a perfumed city," a place she knows yet does not know at all from the winter-world she previously passed through. Though there is the vague feeling of Funder self-consciously looking for meaning in these final chapters, a flicker of her narrative control losing confidence, she still delivers a heart-rending denoument: a recognition of other, humbler human secrets, infinitely lighter than the world she submerged herself into.

The queen of Australian literary journalism, Helen Garner, has rightly acclaimed this book with a cover note that states it "makes us love non-fiction." With her debut Stasiland Anna Funder has certainly announced herself as one of the leading non-fiction writers of the present day, Sydney's very own answer to Joan Dideon. Like Dideon at her early best in books like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Funder's writing persona is taut and pale, interior and existential, yes, but absolutely enmeshed in history. We are fortunate to witness her arrival.

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