Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Review: Berlin Books - Stasiland

The third in the Books on Berlin series deals with life behind the Berlin Wall in the shadow of the Stasi...

Stasiland: Anna Funder

Anna Funder, an Australian journalist living in Berlin, chose the Stasi and East Germany as the topic for her first book. Published in 2003 it received excellent reviews and even won the Guardian's First Book award. Good stuff for Ms Funder, but sadly Stasiland itself doesn't justify the hype.

First up, the good points. Stasiland is made up of a number of individual stories from people in East Germany and their involvement or interaction with the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security), better known as the Stasi. And some of these stories and their tales of individual people living in the shadow of the Stasi are absolutely fascinating, including those persecuted by the ministry, those who tried to escape, those who supported in the Stasi and the system they in turn were propping up, and also those who worked for them in both formal and informal capacities. Funder in general writes well on her subjects, and in this sense her book is worth reading for some of the portraits found in there.

However, and it is a big however, there are a number of problems with this book. Firstly, although Funder can obviously write, sometimes it feels as if she would rather be writing a novel. The opening paragraph of the book is illustrative:

"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 bollard. Tomorrow bruises will develop on my skin, like pictures from a negative."

There is a lot of this kind of writing, and it (for me) generally detracts from the parts which are well-written, descriptive and perceptive, usually when she forgets about herself and concentrates on her subject. Basically there is too much Anna Funder in Stasiland, and most of what is in there is not all that interesting.

Another problem is that the picture she paints about life in East Germany is wholly negative. This is understandable in a book about the Stasi, and maybe this criticism is better aimed at the English language publishers rather than Ms Funder, but I have spoken to many people of all ages who lived in the DDR and the picture painted in almost all books in English that deal with this time in history don't ring true to what these friends of mine and their families tell me.

This is not to diminish the crimes of a state that basically undertook the largest spying operation of any nation in history against its own population, but it does push the average English readers impressions of what life was really like in the DDR along a very simplistic path. In German there are any number of books about all aspects of life in the DDR, and readers can form a better overview of what life was really like. Again, this is not Funder's problem in that her subject is the Stasi, but this simplistic way of looking at East Germany does seem to influence her writing, to the extent that the message about the DDR in general that the reader gets is very black and white.

So although Stasiland is generally a good read, the overly simplistic portrayal of life in the DDR, and the flowery, overly-personal writing prevents me from getting too enthusiastic about a book that actually deals with a subject that fascinates me.

If you want to get a better impression of the operations of the Stasi, and more importantly a discussion of what it all means, and from a far better writer as well, then check out The File by Timothy Garten Ash. I will review that book in detail another time, but I would just quickly say that his exploration of the workings of state security in the DDR is much more nuanced, better explained, and most importantly, recognises the shades of grey involved in the motivations of the people involved.

If you want Stasi For Beginners however, then read Stasiland.

Stasiland is of course available on Amazon, but you can also pick up a copy in the Hauptstadt at one of the English Bookshops in Berlin.

More Books on Berlin.

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