Monday, March 25, 2013
Writing Nazi Germany - Anna Funder and Markus Zusak
I have in recent months read two books centred on Nazi Germany: All that I am – Anna Funder and The Book Thief – Markus Zusak.
I came to both books quite late and, in fact, as I began the Anna Funder, I was worried that I’d be disappointed. Fortunately, there was nothing to worry about. I was hooked from the first scene of Hans and Ruth in their apartment, luxuriating in the bath and drinking mojitos while the crowd below their apartment building lauds the rise of Hitler.
Briefly, the book centres on Dora and her playwright lover/mentor, Ernst Toller, Dora’s cousin, Ruth and Ruth's husband, Hans. As a group, they emerge the other side of World War 1 committed pacifists and fiercely against the blind patriotism that leads to war. As Hitler comes to power, they see him for what he is and, in their actions, become enemies of the state. They all find themselves exiled from Germany.
The story is told through the eyes of Ruth who is coming to the end of her life in present day Sydney, and Toller who is re-working his autobiography in a hotel in the United States in 1939. It is clear that both sets of eyes see Dora is the heroine of their group. Toller in particular is rewriting his autobiography to put Dora back into her rightful place in his and Germany’s history.
The writing is powerful and moving as Funder takes us through the themes of patriotism and idealism, ego and community. Exiled in London, the lives of Dora, Ruth and Hans become a struggle. Their activities are limited by agreements between Germany and Britain and they are dogged by spies and informants. Dora is determined to continue her work. She is resourceful and free-spirited, and never doubts the cause. Out of Germany and away from his own language and a fan base, Hans struggles to maintain a sense of self.
While the reader can see the betrayal coming, it is not lessened by this. It is still devastating and breath-taking. This book and its author deserves all its accolades.
After All that I am, The Book Thief, for me, suffers in comparison. The story itself is fine and quite enjoyable but there are choices that author has made that baffle me. In essence, the story is about the power of words. We follow the life of foster child Leisel during the uprise of Hitler and Nazism, and the outbreak of World War Two. Her foster father teaches her to read and it is books and her love of reading that helps to her to survive.
The book is narrated by Death and has a number of quirky touches that gives it an irritating tweeness. My biggest issue was with Death narrating. I kept wondering why the author didn’t have enough faith in his story to just tell it straight and not resort to such tricksy elements. Death was just too heavy handed. It is Death that gives Leisel the nickname of The Book Thief and then keeps reminding the reader of this throughout the book. Ok, ok, I get it. Why not tell the story without this nicknaming business and let the readers work it out for themselves? Trust us, we’ll read all about Leisel stealing books and saving herself through reading and make all the necessary connections ourselves.
I know it is a beloved book and I can see why. There is plenty about it that I liked as well but I just think it could have been a whole lot more powerful without the quirkiness.