Monday, October 01, 2007

Stasiland

This weekend I found (rather, "MADE") the time to read Anna Funder's Stasiland - a prize-winning collection of personal stories from East Germany. This was, of course, followup to having just seen The Lives of Others - a good film about which I nevertheless had mixed feelings.

So what to say? I have mixed feelings about this book as well.

The main impression is that there was something unsatisfying about it - which seems odd because it was such a page-turner. I read more or less the whole thing through in a single sitting session on Saturday (some on Friday). But by the time you get to the end, you have a distinct feeling of it not having delivered on its promise.

Ah, but how could it? When you've got a 300-odd page book containing the stories of 6 or 7 different people about their lives in the East - well, how could it?

I think the first mistake, actually, and the one that permeates the book, is the undisciplined approach to the whole project. Starting, in fact, with just that: a project about what? Funder doesn't seem to have decided, exactly, before she started the book. Nor is she hiding that fact. She placed an ad in a paper wanting to talk to old Stasi veterans, and the first one who responds wants money for his story. Turns out, she hadn't even though about that niggling little detail - whether she would pay her interviewees? She decides she can't - and so leaves herself at the mercy of people with individual agenda. Unsurprisingly, most of the meat of the book then comes from victims of the Stasi, who she is referred to by one route or another (normally the local Stasi museum), rather than the agents she was originally seeking.

So it's sloppy. And it's not "hard" history.

It's not that I don't understand her ethical dilema about paying the Stasi men for their stories. It does seem grotesque to allow one of them to profit from such a story, and I'm not sure I would be willing to do it either. But a dedicated historian - that is, one who was after the truth primarily - would, and that's the difference, I think.

This is a trendy book. It's written in a trendy style. By which I mean that Funder spends as much time talking about herself as she does her subject. It's the kind of thing that triggers reviews that say "blah a deeply personal account blah blah" as an almost pavlovian response. And it certainly doesn't hurt her bottom line that she's all very "girly" about it in a decidedly Sue Grafton-esque way. "Sloppy-but-strangely-on-top-of-things" is the aesthetic of the day. We get the obligatory disgusting descriptions of things (especially food and cigarettes) here and there - complete with cursewords and unladylike references to sex (entirely to show she's liberated than because they really belong, of course). Though it isn't overtly a book about sex differences, our attention is constantly drawn to them; it hardly seems like a coincidence that all of the "victims" Funder directly interviews are female, the "perps" all male.

Partly that's a fault of the system, of course. For all its braying about gender equality, the DDR government was very much a boys club - and especially the Stasi. If she doesn't interview female officers that's because there really weren't many. But there were certainly plenty of male victims - and they're curiously sidelined here, making appearances only when they come in the room, to cite one example, when she's interviewing their mothers. Which isn't to say Funder isn't entitled to her perferences. It's her book, after all. It's just that I have the impression that this book has already been written - and much more honestly - in German. I can't shake the feeling that Funder stole Szepansky's idea, slobbed it up, published it at a more opportune date (we have Ostalgie these days, after all) in a more profitable language, aimed at the airport lounge and faux-intellectual market, spun it with the proper attitude, and thus made a bundle off of the inferior version. And that nags a bit, I have to say. At least her predecessor had a clear theme.

Then there's the shallowness of the stories. Funder is dealing with a very serious subject matter: Stasi torture and intimiadation. And I guess you just sort of feel that such a subject deserves a serious treatment. It deserves a researched and organized treatment. What we get instead are table scraps - the things people are willing to tell her. It leaves one wishing the project had been undertaken by someone more dedicated to it - someone willing to go after Stasi officers, do her homework on them, comb through the opened files, etc.

That said, the book is highly entertaining - and it's good for what it does. It's a cliche, but history is people more than dates, and there's most definitely something valuable about binding in the same covers up-close-and-personal interviews with the villains as well as their victims. Hell, there's something cool just about up-close-and-personal interviews with some of the villains. I still, for example, can't get over the fact that she sat just across the table from Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler and got lectured at! Mr. Black Channel himself!

The other thing I liked about it was the cornucopia of not-completely-useless-but-totally-amusing trivia about the DDR. For example, I didn't know that Honnecker had a personal cartographer. (!!!) Nor did I know that the power grids had to ready themselves for a crisis every week as Der schwarze Kanal came on the air because so many people shut off their TV sets at the same time. HA!

Ultimately, though, the bubblegum gets to you. When we find out, for example, that her dear drinking buddy "Klaus" is non other than Klaus Renft, it's a bit much. And it's on and on like that, really.

This book is indispensible for any serious historian of the DDR on account of the character annecdotes. But on the whole, I would mostly recommend it as airplane reading. It's short, easy-to-read, episodic (so you can doze and come back as often as needed), unconnected. Informative through the backdoor; doesn't require much concentration. Yeah - airplane lit. Buy a copy in the lounge bookstore, read it on your way to Asia, lend it to a friend, and let it run the circuit.

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