Stasiland, Anna Funder

I don’t even remember when and where I bought this book back in 2010. I don’t remember why I bought it- probably because the name had “Stasi” on it and I was maybe reading some Solzhenitsyn? Or perhaps I liked the bureaucratic dystopia of the image on the cover, dog-eared paper files with serial numbers.

After NINE years, I took it out of a shelf because I was travelling to Berlin. Despite all my planning…I forgot to take it on my travels. Now, many months afterwards, I finally read the book, and wished I’d not been so forgetful. There’s something about seeing the words “Rosenthaler Platz” in a book, and actually staying there for a week, at a hostel that was right at the exit of a U-bahn.

Anna Funder is an Australian writer, who speaks German. She lived in NY for about three years before deciding that the American way of life was not what she wanted to bring up her children in, and so back to Australia she went. I am writing this because it probably explains her writing and her sympathies. Funder is appropriately gloomy and down-at-heels whilst writing the book under a grant. (There’s something romantic in the notion of an artist/creative who hasn’t sold everything to the suits.)

She’s put up in a bare accomodation usually occupied by students. The current owner occasionally comes (in when Funder is not around) to pick up remnants of her (the owner’s) previous life. Funder’s own encounters with the remnants of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is somewhat like that- furtive collections of memory from ex-Stasi men (yes mostly men), and their victims (mainly women who tell the tale). No-one is particularly elated about their new lives, the victims mourn their stolen lives and the perpetrators the loss of their invincibility.

Once in a while, when she is overcome by the stories, Funder calls up Klaus and asks “wanna get drunk?”.

Klaus is Klaus Renft- “bad boy of East German rock ‘n’ roll…Klaus started off playing Chuck Berry and Bill Haley covers in the fifties, and then moved on in the sixties to the Animals, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and in the seventies to Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Often these records were banned outright so Klaus and his friends listened illegally to western RIAS radio, and recorded the sonds on huge tape decks in order to work out the music. They sang, screaming, ‘A ken’t get no, zetizfektion.’ Here’s a sample of their work (I am purposely selecting one of their more mellow blues period songs because in my head that’s how Klaus was after the wall fell, sitting in his room and drinking all that beer).

I was haunted by the lives of men and women who lived through a way of life, never believing the end of that would happen. Suddenly one day it does and then they are left with a sort of strange vision that clarifies so much it leaves one stunned “I mean you see the mistakes of one system-the surveillance-and the mistakes of the other – the inequality- but there’s nothing you could have done in one, and nothing you can do now about the other’. She laughs wryly. ‘And the clearer you see that, the worse you feel.’

How difficult is for lives to adjust to a complete disruption of how they understood the world? What did they compromise on, in order to survive?

On Aug 1961, East German soldier Conrad Schumann leaped over the wires to the western side of Berlin. He went on to live a life of “freedom”, worked at an Audi plant for thirty years, married etc. However he later said he only felt free after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Schumann committed suicide in 1998. Photo credit: The Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain]

Perhaps it is also Germany in a way that poses many questions on the directions we could take when states start playing a larger role in our lives. It was quite possible for one lifetime to have started at the end of a Weimar period, followed by a youth in Nazi Germany, followed by an end in the Socialist state-controlled GDR. A very long-lived east-German could even end up with old age in a post-unification capitalist country!

What would we choose, to survive the stasi-land of our own times is a final question that we are left with. The answer may surprise ourselves. It may not even be clear now, not until long after the choices we make.

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