Sydney-based Funder’s impressive debut crisply renders her pursuit of East Berlin’s ghosts.
When she was writer-in-residence at the Australia Center in Potsdam, the author became fascinated by the uneasy truce former East Germans kept with their recent Communist past, which was literally all around. The German Democratic Republic’s surveillance apparatus, run by the Stasi (secret police), was more pervasive than elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc; many people became informers, while others had their lives ruined for minor infractions. Funder befriended several survivors, such as Miriam, who was arrested at 16 in 1968 for anti-authoritarian pranks; fearing prison, she attempted to cross the Berlin Wall, served time, and was persecuted for years. (Eventually her lover died, mysteriously, in custody.) A couple the author met had nearly lost their sick child, who was at a better hospital in West Berlin; her landlady was barely able to acknowledge what turned out to be a history of twisted treatment by the Stasi. Similar trials are recalled with cocky humor by survivors like Klaus Renft, once a naïve underground rock star whose band provided youthful GDR residents with “something authentic and unauthorised.” Funder also sought out ex-Stasi workers willing to tell their stories; she had a memorably bizarre encounter with Herr von Schnitzler, a despised pioneer of televised propaganda who defended the regime with undiminished vitriol. Funder shrewdly blends memoir elements with these personal histories and casts an attentive eye on the decrepit landscape with its haunting traces of the old regime, most dramatically expressed by the official effort to untangle the Stasi’s paper trail: an office of so-called “puzzle women” working to restore shredded documents in an effort projected to take 375 years. The former GDR may be out of the news these days, but Funder’s fully humanized portrait of the Stasi’s tentacles reads like a warning of totalitarian futures to come.
Colorful, intensely observed, well executed, with lots of black humor and disturbing undertones.