Book Group Report – Land of the grey

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

After the racy delights of Jilly Cooper’s Riders last month, we went for something completely different for our February read.

Stasiland by Anna Funder is a work of investigative journalism, chronicling the lives of some people who lived in the GDR before the Berlin Wall came down. Funder is an Australian journalist who learned German liking ‘the sticklebrick nature of it.’  She went on to study and live in West Berlin in the 1980s where she ‘wondered long and hard what went on behind that Wall.’  She returned in the 1990s to investigate the ‘horror-romance‘ of the GDR, and what remained of it.

Taking a flat in East Berlin, she talked to both watchers and the watched, and visited the buildings of the GDR apparatus some of which have been turned into museums.  The stories of Miriam, who became an enemy of the state at just sixteen, and Frau Paul, whose sick baby had to be taken to the West and ended up separated from her for years, and Anna’s landlady Julia’s terrifying ordeal were as touching as Funder’s interviews of ex-Stasi officers were distasteful. By alternating between the two it really brings home the differences between the haves and have-nots of the East German state.

For the have-nots, everything in life is difficult.  Everything is shrouded in bureaucracy, and if you are out of favour with the State, it is doubly so. Funder tells of the occasion when Julia tried to find a job …

Julia went to the Employment Office, took a number and stood in an interminable line. She was among people who might have had similar experiences, both explicable and not, to her own. She turned to the man behind her and asked, ‘So how long have you been unemployed?’
Before he could answer an official, a square-built woman in uniform, stepped out from behind a column.
‘Miss, you are not unemployed,’ she barked.
‘Of course I’m unemployed,’ Julia said. ‘Why else would I be here?’
‘This is the Employment Office, not the Unemployment Office. You are not unemployed; you are seeking work.’
Julia wasn’t daunted. ‘I’ am seeking work,’ she said, ‘because I am unemployed.’
The woman started to shout so loudly the people in the queue hunched their shoulders. ‘I said, you are not unemployed! You are seeking work!’ and then, almost hysterically, ‘There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic!’

Funder has plenty of time to muse on the greyness of everything in the former GDR.  Her flat is a prime example.

In the kitchen I make coffee directly in the thermos. What surprises me about living here is that no matter how much is taken out, this linoleum palace continues to contain all the necessities for life, at the same time as it refuses to admit a single thing, either accidentally or arranged, of beauty or joy. In this, I think, it is much like East Germany itself.

The thing that came through for me, again and again, was the flatness and lack of colour in the East.  One of our group had been to North Korea, and said it too felt like that, and everything was old and broken.

There were few moments of light relief in this book, maybe with the exception of Klaus the idolised East German rock star, unknown outside his own country. Despite us all being moved by the plight of the women she interviewed, it was the machinations of the Stasi that really gripped.  When interviewing Herr Bock, a recruiter of informers for the Stasi, she interrupts to explain his comments to us, which I and most of our group found helpful.

We all felt that Funder didn’t come over as typically Australian – she did feel like someone who had got to know the German mind really well over the years. Her reportage style of writing showed us East Germany through neutral eyes, which didn’t judge, just telling it how she observed it. A fascinating and touching book in equal measure, Stasiland did fall slightly flat for me.  As someone who doesn’t read a lot of non-fiction, and even less reportage, I found the author’s impartiality rather than her own personality coming through into the pages made it rather dry – but that’s just me.  (7/10)

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. Pub by Granta books 2003, paperback 304 pages.

7 thoughts on “Book Group Report – Land of the grey

  1. Juna says:

    This subject is also covered in an amazing film called “The Lives of Others.” It’s intelligently done and quite moving.

  2. Lois says:

    ‘Forty Autumns’ by Nina Willner, an ex U.S. Intelligence officer, whose mother escaped to West Germany as very young woman and went on to marry an American serviceman, is another interesting non-fiction work about East Germany. It’s an account of her grandparents and mother’s siblings’ post-war lives and eventual reunion with their sister. The youngest in the family represented the country as a cyclist and was among the athletes who couldn’t believe that the Wall had fallen, thinking, when told this by their hard-line coaches, that it was a trick to test their loyalty. I admired Willner’s objectivity, especially in regard to her own high-ranking career as an Army intelligence officer in East Germany, but found it a bit flat. Perhaps flatness tone is almost inescapable in describing the severely repressed emotions and aspirations of that time.

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