Do you ever think back and remember what you were doing when you heard about the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001? Or when you heard John Lennon was assassinated? Or Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, President John F. Kennedy? Or maybe you can go back farther still and recall how you felt when you heard about Kent State? And even farther, about Pearl Harbor? We often do this-attempt to parallel our personal memories with history-and that is how Anna Funder's powerful debut novel, All That I Am: A Novel, opens. No, I think I would rather say that that is how Anna Funder allows history to explode, to burst open...like an embolism in the brain.
The novel opens-"When Hitler came to power I was in the bath." This is the memory of Dr Ruth Becker Wesemann, a very old woman in Sydney, Australia, diagnosed with plaguing of the brain which causes not only her short-term memory loss but also more vivid long-term recollections. "I feel sane enough-young enough-to experience loss as loss. Then again, nothing and no one has been able to kill me yet."
It is the year 2001 and Ruth unexpectedly receives a package from Columbia University in New York. It contains documents from 1939 belonging to a Mr Ernst Toller as well as a first edition of Mr Toller's autobiography, I WAS A GERMAN, with a handwritten note 'For Ruth Wesermann.' The book will enable Ruth to go back in time, back to the early 1930's and her beloved homeland of Germany. As Ruth is stirred by the contents of Toller's book, she reminds us about the power of memory in our battle with our minds, a battle against forgetting our past, forgetting history.
All That I Am: A Novel is about a little known chapter of German history. Questions often arise as to why the German people did not rise to stop Hitler, to halt his machine in its beginnings; or why the rest of the world paid no heed to the urgent warnings of the intellectuals and political activists of the time; or why Hitler and Nazism would not be defeated; or why evil was triumphant over good-allowing millions of people to be murdered, executed, exterminated? This beautifully written, evocative novel attempts to answer these questions and provide a rare insight into the hearts and minds of brave men and women who in the early 1930's dared to resist Hitler and the Nazi regime, and who worked tirelessly to bring him down and terminate the Third Reich.
All That I Am: A Novel is an extraordinary and unnerving work of historical fiction based on very real people, in very real events, during a terrifyingly foreboding era between the horrific World Wars of Twentieth Century Europe.
Written with deceptively simple prose, All That I Am: A Novel is rich with subtext. With characters of remarkable depth and extraordinary intelligence, most of whose names are genuine, Funder's stunning narrative arc takes a story line grounded in actual history and makes it soar with exhilarating passion. All That I Am: A Novel is a novel about the finest aspects of humanity when humanity is challenged by the terrors of greatest evil.
Funder has "reconstructed" this story from pieces of real evidence left behind in the wreckage of history, pieces of a very true story belonging to her personal friend, Ruth, to whom this novel is dedicated. Ruth and a tightly knit group of courageous and heroic friends fled into exile from Germany in 1933 on a bold and dangerous mission to alert their fellow Germans as well as the world to the dangers of Adolf Hitler and the rising Third Reich. Funder unearthed this dramatic story "from fossil fragments, much as you might draw skin and feathers over an assembly of dinosaur bones, to fully see the beast. These are the bones I found."
The story line of All That I Am: A Novel drives forward slowly and deliberately, told from two alternating perspectives, that of Ruth in 2001 and that of the poet and revolutionary Ernst Toller in 1939. With frequent use of the flashback technique, the story unfolds and reads like a suspense thriller.
The narrative progresses sequentially but in a non-linear manner to provide a vividly detailed exploration of the triangulated relationship between Ruth, Toller and Ruth's fearlessly heroic cousin, Dr Dora Fabian. Ruth and Toller are the two for whom Dora was the sun. They move in her orbit and it was the force of Dora that kept them solid, kept them going, kept them fighting. Dora is the very heart and the soul of the militant leftist party to which the three are so dedicated.
And if Ruth, Dora and Toller are three, they are each also points on a 5 pointed star which includes Ruth's husband, Hans Wesermann, and Hans's best friend, Berthold Jacob. Together with a cell of other dedicated leftist political exiles, they are a daring unit of defiant young Germans who mount a fierce campaign at the risk of their own lives to not only resist and stop Hitler and his Nazi machine, but to alert their fellow countrymen as well as the entire world to the dangers of the horrific madman and his totalitarian regime... of its insipid oppression, of its unfathomable brutality and of its unbelievable savagery against not only European Jews, but other German people and the conquered populations of the Reich's European conquests.
"...'How can we allow this pudgy, cake-scoffing homosexual, this flatulent nail biter, to represent Germany? But seriously, they say that the Leader is a teetotaler, a bachelor, a non-smoking vegetarian, as if he were a man removed from our normal, base desires, uninterested in satisfying himself. Concerned only with the wellbeing of the German nation. But we say he fulfils his bloodlust in other ways. You do not have to have read Dr Freud to know that desire denied does not go away of its own accord. It wraps and moves like a river denied its course, it flows on to drown other things. And, in the case of Adolf Hitler, those things are us.'..." So spoke the voice of one of the young German resistors who manages to broadcast from exile in Czechoslovakia his courageous anti-Hitler messages into the heart Germany.
And this is the spirit that kept me riveted to this novel, that moved me to tears, or took my breath away with its passion, its intrigue, its suspense, its action, and above all, its inspiration. This is historical fiction at its finest and I applaud Anna Funder for a most exhilarating reading experience.