The Brain Feign
Written in response to:
The most compelling reason for doubting Anna Funder’s fictional capabilities was expressed by the writer herself a few years ago. Taking issue with the German film The Lives of Others, she informed the journalist in a Sydney Morning Herald interview that the story could not be believed; there could not have been one stasi agent who might have been moved to doubt his role in the oppressive East German regime he served. Funder was adamant, as if she had come to think of herself as a kind of expert on German history, having published her book Stasiland. It was an interesting book, and informative, but hardly qualified her as an historian on modern Germany.
But that wasn’t what concerned me so much as her apparent failure to grasp the very nature of fiction. ‘What if’ is a pretty basic but fundamental starting point for fiction. What if you found out your uncle had killed your father? Wouldn’t you be expected to avenge your father’s death? Even worse, what if your mother had married your uncle? And what if you lacked the instincts of a killer? What if you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it? What would be the consequences of that?
The power of the The Lives of Others lay precisely in its interrogation of the East German dictatorship and its habit of spying on its own people. To be taken into the world of the stasi agent who gradually comes to care for the objects of his surveillance is exactly what fiction needs to do to work on us: by making him human, and indeed, quite sympathetic as he becomes involved in the lives of others, is exactly what great fiction does, literary or cinematic. The ruthless power of the state is much more movingly captured through this relationship than it could otherwise have been. The plight of the East Germans as both perpetrators and victims is convincingly and memorably portrayed.
Funder’s lack of imagination really struck me at the time and it seemed amazing she was so wedded to her particular point of view she couldn’t see past it, or round it. Ironically, her point of view seemed very totalitarian. And as Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out, no good novel ever comes from a totalitarian stance. Novels are essentially democratic. The best are polyphonic and give us a range of views. It seems to me Funder could spend a bit of time reading the Russians, and Mikhail Bakhtin in particular.
I enjoyed Ben Etherington’s piece, ‘The Brain Feign’. I have long wondered whether some of the praise for All That I Am came more from Funder’s ambitious aims for the book, rather than for the book itself.
Anna Funder can certainly write, but what I found offensive in All That I Am is what I consider ‘literary cannibalism’ – the taking over of real life characters, who may still have family or friends living, injecting made-up words and emotions into them, and presenting their (imagined) inner lives in such a way as to crowd out reality, to stifle truth. All historical fiction does this to some extent, but we have real life histories and biographies of Napoleon and Caesar and Cleopatra (and Thomas Cromwell) against which to weigh fictional representations.
Not so with Ruth in All That I Am. Who gave Anna Funder permission to purloin someone’s life? How would the real Ruth have felt if she knew her life would be plundered for such a purpose after her death? I think there’s a kind of writerly hubris about this kind of fictional appropriation. The belief that you can really imagine yourself into the mind and body of another living human is surely false, and I find it invasive and presumptuous. At least most historians and biographers have the humility to present their human portraits as possibilities.
To Anna Funder, I would say: If you want to write fiction, make things up. If you can’t, then write non-fiction – you did it very well with Stasiland. But please don’t borrow meaning by stealing someone else’s life.
Wonderful to see All That I Am looked at dispassionately in Ben Etherington’s critique. I too thought it was a poor novel and wondered whether the subject matter made her above criticism. I feel there is an analogy to The Hand that Signed the Paper, though there were other issues there.
As well as the flaws that Ben lists, I found that the confusion between novel or biography also affected the success of the work. Herta Mueller’s The Hunger Angel seems likewise to fall between these two stools.
Dr Marie McInnes
University of Sydney