This is my review of Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder.
I came to this much-hyped book with high expectations. The stories of East Germans who lived the wrong side of the Berlin Wall provide a chilling reminder of how the Stasi stalked, persecuted, imprisoned and tortured those suspected of subversion or guilty of infringing the petty and oppressive restrictions of a state dominated by bigoted control freaks.
We read of the talented student who was failed in her examinations and denied employment because she had an Italian boyfriend; the woman who was denied the right to visit her sick child in hospital, separated from him by the arbitrary construction of the wall, unless she agreed to lure into a trap a young west German who had been helping people to escape: she refused and was haunted by the decision for the rest of her life; the man who resigned in disgust from the Stasi, only to find himself falsely represented to his wife as a pornographer, on which false grounds she was forced to divorce him, or risk losing access to her son.
The author is good on the bizarre operations of the large number of Stasi agents. "Touch nose with hand or handkerchief" meant, "Watch out, subject is coming!" East Berliners could be fined simply for having a television aerial angled towards the west. It will take an estimated 375 years at the current rate of work to piece together all the files torn in pieces by the Stasi as they tried to cover their tracks when the wall came down. Far too many of former Stasi members still hold positions of influence in society. The final irony is that some people voice a highly selective nostalgia for a time when prices were lower, and life more secure for those who managed to toe the line.
Sadly,the writer often distracts us from the full horror, pain and lunacy of the stories with her clunky, jarring prose. In the final acknowledgements, she names the "great friends who provided a much needed sense of normal life" in Berlin. So, why do they not feature in the book? Why does she portray herself as a loner apart from beery pub crawls, who rents a soulless under-furnished flat in Berlin? Too many of the characters, in particular the small number of ex-Stasi men, seem caricatures and many of the stories do not ring true at times. My charitable conclusion is that this is because they are in some cases a pastiche of reality, but the truth here must be more telling than any contrived story.
In short, this is an important and compelling theme, marred by mediocre delivery.