“All we are not stares back at all that we are”.
This is the lament of the acclaimed English poet W.A.Auden, making a cameo appearance in the 2012 Miles Franklin Award winner, “All that I Am” by Anna Funder. Reaching beyond the era of her enthusiastically received first publication “Stasiland”, Funder brings into sharp focus elusive stories of courage shown by those who attempted to resist the relentless pursuit of power by Hitler and his supporters.
Anna Funder skilfully recreates the world of writers and political activists in Germany between the wars, incongruously juxtaposed with Bondi Junction in the present. “All that I Am”, cannot be placed firmly in a single genre. This absorbing novel is part thriller, part romance, and part historical recreation. Real people have inspired the author to open the blinds in a dim corner of the 20th century which is worthy of illumination and remembrance.
Central to the novel are five intertwined figures presented through the alternating narratives of playwright Ernst Toller in New York in 1939, and photographer Ruth Becker in Bondi Junction almost 70 years later. Both narrators ultimately face the naked truth behind bravery and betrayal, love and loss, courage and confusion in the face of an overwhelming power which shatters their security. “All that I Am” reminds us that we all have the capacity for self deception; for not seeing what stares back at us in the mirror, for ignoring the inconvenient truths around us. Chilling parallels exist between Toller’s vicarious ‘voyage of the damned’, when refugees from Nazi Germany aboard the SS St Louis in 1939 were turned back from ports in Cuba, America and Canada, and the turbulent voyages that continue to feature in the news today.
The characters’ performances in the novel are not choreographed by Toller and Ruth – or Funder. These individuals are not fictional creations but authentic historical figures and their actions as presented may be verified with a few mouse clicks. Auden, Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Thomas Mann are names readily recognised by the reader, and while others may be unfamiliar, Funder breathes life back into their existence as the plot unfolds towards its finale – set not in Auschwitz but in the safe haven of bustling Bondi Junction. The source of much of the novel’s content is the real Ruth, with the characters enlivened and conversations reconstructed through Funder’s intelligent instinct, mastery of language and skill in presenting the theatre of life.
The judges of the Miles Franklin award have recognised the timeless value of this novel, a Pandora’s box presenting the woes of the world as well as hope emerging from a forgotten archive to be dusted off and re-examined in the blinding sunshine of Bondi Beach. It is a reminder of “all that we are individually, collectively and globally…..”
Reviewed by Christine McGuigan