A boy sent to war

“Your son is too sensitive to go to war, ” the recruiter said solemnly. His hair-thin mustache twitched and seemed to crawl like a sickly caterpillar, it moved in its strange way half a centimeter across his face so that it was now off center. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, perhaps it had been off center from the start. My mind has funny ways of rationalizing the peculiarities I see.

“Oh okay,” I manage to squeeze out of my blushing cheeks (although you couldn’t tell my cheeks were permanently an angry red from a rare cystic acne). The greasy crust cracked as I let out a sigh, yellow ooze already pouring out the fissures.

I wasn’t filled with any sort of surprise, I expected disaster around every corner and in every roll of the perpetually jouncing dice of cruel Fortuna.

“He can fight and die like everyone else!” my mother burst out. Her words crashed with a violence against both me and the solemn recruiter. Silent tears ran down my face and began reacting with recently exposed pus, a misty gas take began taking form and started filling the room. Little did I know at the time but the chemical reaction was releasing hydrogen cyanide identical to the process used to create Zyklon B being used on jews, cripples and homosexuals as all this was happening.

However a deadlier smoke was erupting from my mother’s fiery mouth as she raged on.
“He’s as able as every other boy out in Yurope!” she spat through sulfurous flames. A bulging vein exploded on her forehead splattering hot red lava across the recruiter’s face and ruining his mustache.
“Alright, fine, yeah, okay, he can go to war.” he finally surrendered.

“Goodbye,” someone whispered without emotion.

And so I was lead into a room where they shaved my head into a square shape and proceeded to shove a square helmet on my head after which I was contorted into a rectangular cannon with which I was going to be fired off to Yurope. As I looked back a final time I saw my mother walking away meekly after her outburst and the recruiter was reapplying his mustache with a black felt pen. He sketched a small butterfly on his cheek which landed on his upper lip and laid an egg which hatched to become another equally pathetic mustache.

I sat back in the chamber– its oily walls saturated my body– and closed the hatch. The sounds echoed around; the sound of fizzling ignition and impossibly loud boom.
All of a sudden everything had turned into sky.

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Memory, nature’s gift or curse?

From the time we are born, our understanding of world is shaped and reshaped. Jean Piaget, a Swiss development psychologist and philosopher, once observed that “what we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see”.  We each have unique experiences, and it is our individual responses to experiences that mould the lenses through which we perceive reality over time. Think back to the time when you were a schoolkid, the way you perceived the world, and how memory now provides you with a sense of who you are and your current view of the world.  At the same time, consider how your perception of the past has shifted. Do you still view childhood activities such as finger painting and playing in treehouses as fun now that you’ve experience so much else? Piaget’s comment reflects how the past influences you’re current and you’re current influences your past. If this is the case, can we live in a world where we can come to a complete understanding of someone else’s surroundings and view the world from their eyes? Nonetheless, the demands of life certainly necessitate that we need to have some form of comprehension in order to avoid conflict. Whilst the disparities in our view of various circumstances will always exists and cannot be overcome, through interpretation and exposure to multiple realities as well as ability to empathise and express humility, we are able to gather glimpses of truth.

Our past experiences where we formulate own personal views and opinions shape and filter the way we view the world. As the path that we walk is unique to each and every one of us, our perception is so too exclusive to our personal individual.  In Spies we become aware of how Stephen’s initially believes and follows Keith’s lead to the point that without Keith “telling him what to think, he’d stopped thinking about it at all”.  Isn’t this us all as children, naively believing whatever out parents or other authoritarian figures tell us to be true and what to and not to do? We hold our parents hand as we cross at the intersection and only when the green man appears, believing that if we don’t it is an “enormous crime”. This is only so, until some of us brave ones decide to take the lead and cross in the middle of street.  Stephen does exactly this and undergoes a transformation that leads him to emerge from the confinements of Keith’s sphere. Instead of conforming to Keith’s control on the various activities they undertake, he does what most children at his age start to do, which is to challenge and “[emerge] from the old dark world of tunnels”. As such, he starts to take initiative like many of us do, going out alone without Keith in the middle of the night on his own little “great exploit”.  From his own exploration, culminating in his eventual visit to the man in the “darkness”, he realises that their spying game-something the young boys saw as just a game, “simple and straightforward” could actually become “infinitely complex and painful”. No single person shares the same journey in life, the lenses in which we each come to view this world with is constantly being mouldered. As you and I go through life, we constantly draw on these past experiences to explain what is going on around us.

Furthermore, the accumulation of personal experiences means that on another level, our individual understanding of particular situations can change over time and as we mature. If say two people we to share the same pair of eyes but have two different functional brains, would their view of the world be the same? Unless your one of the few people with a photographic memory, chances are you’ll forget most of even your most memorable moments. Our recollection of the past is inherently unreliable and fallible as gaps are constantly being formed and filled with stories. Our current scenarios and state of mind influences the way we unconsciously chose to remember certain events.  Elizabeth Loftus a pioneer in Reconstructive Memory states how “people come to believe that things that never really happened”. As a guest of a documentary conducted by the National Geographic Channel, she demonstrates how by planting two people with false statements in a group of witnesses of a crime, new memories are able to be easily embedded and existing ones altered. Michael Frayn in his novel Spies, similarly recognises how our current selves and experiences can manipulate the events of past and as such he creates two characters that is of the same person- a younger ignorant Stephen and an older wiser Stephen. The older Stephen who is trying to “piece” everything “together half a century later” acknowledges how difficult it is to maintain an objective view of what happened, “remembering the order things occurred in” and ensuring that it is not being “over-written by hindsight”.  The malleability of memories often means that our awareness or interpretation of our past is constantly undergoing alterations, unable to provide an accurate representation of reality.

However, despite our inability to overcome the alterations that memory has on our past and present, our life revolves around the desire and need to have an understanding and a grounding of the views of other people. Humans are social creatures; we interact with each other, communicate and share ideas and stories. Whilst a true insight cannot be attainment, through the combination of careful contemplation, self-examination and empathy we are able to eclipsing a state of ignorance. People come together and share their extensive perceptual experiences and this enables us to learn of certain historical events. Through memoirs such as Night by Elie Wiesel and raw footages, we are constantly reminded of the horrors that transpired during the Holocaust, how he described it as being “everyone lived and died for himself alone”. We are inspired to feel deep sorrow and grief, giving us a discernment of such actions.  Consequently, we as a society come to accept that the Holocaust was an event that had widespread repercussions and invaded on the lives of countless victims and acknowledge that we collectively need learn from this harsh reality so it is not repeated. Feigning ignorance to these widely accepted realities can cause one to recede into insanity.

In its totality, society cannot hope to grasp a reality where everyone is able to comprehend and view the world with the same lenses as we have different experiences that result in different beliefs and attitude. Our conscience is constantly leaving out information that may be crucial. In order for individuals to perceive in an identical manner, this quality of life would have to be mitigated, thus destroying individuality. This does not mean that we are unable to perceive what other perceive, but rather we are offered glimpses of it that can only be observed through the arduous process of careful scrutiny.  Subjectivity arises because rarely do we spend the time of the effort, contemplating every step of our life, something that philosophers Plato, Socrates and Aristotle spend their entire lives doing.

 

 

 

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Our Own Puppeteer

It begins the time we are born, the time we emerge into the bright light of this world; fear becomes our puppet masters, forcing us to recede into an illusionary world to protect ourselves. It controls us, constantly manipulating the strings of our lives preventing us from truly ever coming to terms with an understanding of our surroundings. It is the fear of the harshness of reality that forces us to constantly wear a mask, to create an illusionary world of our own construct as we try to deny the existence of this fear. Whilst in the short term this may be harmless and even beneficial at times, but there are numerous examples in literature that warn us of the dire repercussions of maintaining this distorted reality.  We see this warning constantly paralleled in society as the fear of accepting the truth grips the community as a whole, shielding them from a perpetuating problem but at the same times allowing this problem to grow such heights that eventually it overrides and overwhelms us.

To some extent, we need to recede into illusions as a short term way of ameliorating some of the brutality that reality throws at us. The strings of our masters: fear, can at times lend a helping hand to put on a mask and guide us through harsh times. The world around us can be cruel and punishing, and the pain of the sudden loss of someone can overwhelm us and fill us with loneliness and despair. Creating illusions may be a necessary way of dealing with tragic circumstances. This idea is explored in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman through the character Linda Loman and Charley, who at the end of the play are attending Willy Loman’s funeral, receding temporarily into an illusionary world to deal with the sudden loss of someone close to them. Charley speaks of Willy Loman in a manner unseen before in the play, that nobody should “blame” Willy a man out there “riding on a smile and a shoeshine”, trying to achieve a dream that consumed him. This contrasts to the way Charley speaks directly to Willy reminding him to “grow up” and come to terms that with the fact he isn’t going to achieve the success that he so desired. Similarly Linda Loman deals with the loss of Willy by speaking to him as if he is still present, sharing that they are finally “free” making the last repayment on the house, a symbol of achieving the American Dream that Willy so desired.  Within certain parameters, literature shows that illusions as a form of escapism are a necessary tool to protect and suspend ourselves from the cruelty of reality momentarily, to deal with the repercussion of facing the truth.

However this release from reality is only temporary as the consequences of sustaining illusions to such an extent that it governs our life is often devastating. Instead of coping with reality, allowing fear of reality to manifest itself into an illusion or delusion and only seeks to delay and worsen the inevitable. Arthur Miller exemplifies this in Death of a Salesman through the character of Willy Loman who is stuck in a dangerous world of prestige and grandeur imposed by the American Dream. Willy Loman’s interpretation of the American Dream is that success will naturally come to you if you’re “well liked”, that this quality is held in higher regard than being “honest” or making an “effort”.  Living in such a distorted world due does not ultimately make him a person who is content with the life he lived. The fabrication of his own mind of being “vital” and having “friends” whilst at the beginning may have at the start helped him cope with the harshness of his life, but eventually became a symbol and reminder of his own failure leading to his eventual downfall as he is unable to “walk away”.  His situation is exacerbated through his overly supportive wife, Linda, who seems to also maintain her own illusion to help deal with the desperation and fear of Willy’s situation. She is constantly playing the supportive role, under the impression that Willy Loman is only a “little boat looking for a harbour”, giving him a soothing “pill” to help his stress which adds to Willy’s eventual demise. The danger of trying living in illusions is also depicted by Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, a fabulously wealthy young man, and the embodiment of the American Dream is infatuated with “[repeating] the past” and “[fixing] everything just the way it was before”.  His blind pursuit of Daisy, the girls he fell in love at first sight, causes him to lose sight of reality, lost in a world of decadent fantasy construct, which ultimately leads to be downfall. As such, one can only evade the fear of facing reality for a short period of time, as the eventually the power of reality crushes the paltry barriers we try to build.

The most frightening form of illusion is when it grips society as a whole where the strings of control attach onto each and every individual and blind them to the encroaching problems of world.  As society, we often help each other to evade reality through the construction of societal misconceptions which can have a lasting impact for the wider community and future generations. Despite criticisms by Arthur Miller and fellow writer Scott Fitzgerald in their works Death of a Salesman and The Great Gatsby, drawing attention to the impact of a national ethos comprised of a materialistic drive to acquire more and more, the rest of us chose to turn a blind eye and continue on our pursuit of wealth to shattering consequences. This was most recently illustrated in the 2006-2007 Global Financial Crisis, an upheaval that put hundreds of millions of people across the globe out of jobs. Governments and the financial institutions repeatedly chose to ignore the warning signs that they received, of an imminent catastrophe, instead fixated on continued “higher profits and higher shareholder returns”, gambling with money that were the life savings of pensioners, families and naïve investors. The refusal by government regulators and financial institutions to believe that the “sound” world economic system could fail is captured in the docudrama “Inside Job”. Instead of responding to the signs impending GFC catastrophe, the film explores how the government around the world continue to relax laws, allowing banks to issue an unprecedented amount of debt, unwilling to accept that this would eventually collapse.  Riding the waves of this boom, society was under the impression that this couldn’t come to an end, an illusion that only sought to seek and intensify the inevitable.

Illusions which are a product of fear may initially help us come to terms with our reality, but sustaining it for long periods of time only seeks to delay what is unavoidable as when illusion and reality do eventually collide, only reality will emerge unscathed.  By this time, the harsh reality that we are faced is likely to have mutated into a more grotesque form. Thus, the right course of action is to relinquish the strings of fear that we are so often bound by and become the masters of our own life, accepting reality for what it is. By taking control, we are able to utilise something far more powerful than illusion to cope with reality, which imagination, a conjuration of the mind not controlled by fear, allowing us not only to deal but to solve and see the light in many of the harsh reality that both individuals and society are faced with.

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The Endless Cycle of Change

Individuals are like vases forever spinning on a potter’s wheel, constantly shaped and reshaped as time goes on. The unique shape and size of these creative artefacts can be compared to the way individuality is formed.  Both experience and imagination, in a range of creative ways, bring about our personal views of life, our own unique insight.  We see these occurrences particularly with writers of literary works, who often allude to significance of the way experiences and imagination combine, similar to a set of potter’s hands to trace out the way they come to see and view the world.  The way their clay has been shaped is often reflected in their works and serves as an interpretation of their views and values. The messages in their works additionally serve as a way of guiding and building other people’s vases, displaying individual’s ability to extend some creative assistance to help mould the vases of people around us. Yet, with each spin of the wheel, we run into the chance that our smooth symmetrical face may be cracked.

In spite of life’s difficulties, fragments of the past continuously provide a framework for the way individuals perceive the world, laying the foundations to the current shape of our vase. It is through our experiences and our fallible recollections of these occurrences that we are provided with a sense of who we are and what is important to us. The works of many writers illustrate the way they have been influenced by memories of their experiences. Arthur Miller, arguably one of the world’s most famous playwright delves into his own lifetime experiences, especially as child, to serve as inspiration and creative energy to imaginatively redefine his interpretation of society and the “American Dream”, explored through his play “Death of a Salesman.” His resentment of the materialistic and mythical American Dream and social pressures it puts on people’s lives is profoundly explicit in the play. Miller himself is quite open about his childhood experiences of having a father whose business failed as a result of the 1929 stock market crash and having a “salesman” uncle who persistently tried to invigorate competition between him and his cousin.  It would seem that these childhood memories created Miller’s reality in the 1950s, paralleled through the play that people cannot simply  as Willy Loman persistently refrains walk  “into the jungle and… walk out” expecting it to be “full of diamonds”. Miller disparages and characterises Willy Loman’s insistence that success is just right around the corner and can be attained by being “well-liked” instead of being diligent or showing initiative, echoing Millers view at the time. Miller tragically draws readers into the destructive blinding effect of the mythical “American Dream” through Willy, who is perilously lost is world of pursuing better cars, better refrigerators-a form of consumerism that eventually consumes him. When we consider our own lives, we might similarly see that with each spin and each turn, the events and circumstances that we encounter in life distinctively crafts us to come to a comprehension of our outlook of the world around us.

The world is complex and mysterious and we cannot hope to comprehend everything in it. Equally important and in addition to the way our past experiences shape who we are, is the need for our using imagination and creativity to also play their role. As such, just like children, adults continue to imagine and visualise to help them make sense of their surroundings to define who they uniquely are. To illustrate, writers often use imaginary works as a means to provide themselves with an interpretation of current social and political circumstances. Russian science fiction writer, Yevgeny Zamyatin, who penned the 1921 dystopian novel “We”, depicting a world in the distant future where an oppressive government has creates a society where all the buildings are made out of glass and people are known only as numbers, serves as an essential catalyst for Zamyatin to come to terms with the sweeping political changes taking place in Russia during the early 20th century. His imaginative prowess provided him with a means to draw certain parallels and conclusions between the fictional world and the real world. The novel expresses how the 1917 Russian revolution suppressed human thought is similarly compared to Zamyatin’s fictional government that is designed for ‘ridding man of crime’ that as a result also perpetrated the ridding of  “freedom”. The way the characters, such as D-503 and R-013 in the novel is referred to only by their letter and numbers, forebodes Zamyatin’s view that the establishment of a communist ideology will result in the annihilation of one’s identity. The reality presented to the author disturbed him, similar to the way our realities often deeply perplexes and confound us.

The hands in which we are constructed by do not have to be our own as other people’s imagination and past experience also influence our views, allowing us to expand the amount of clay we have access to, creating vases that are more complex in nature. Through past experiences of other’s around us, we learn and expand our knowledge shaping the part of our perception that is shared. Even when many of us weren’t there when the Germany committed genocide against Jewish people, the information that we get through memoirs and autobiographies left behind by survivors and the various heartbreaking footages become a part of us. Thus we learn of the harsh reality of history, and respect the consequence of our actions if history is to be repeated, through the constant reminders of those who have experienced atrocities.  Elie Wiesel’s famous novel Night which recounts his experience with his father in a Nazi Germany concentration camp, brings personal stories that would otherwise be lost. How else could we know the suffering experienced by the Jewish people in the concentration camps, if we aren’t reminded of the past as Wiesel puts it “everyone lives and dies for himself along” in those camps.  Similarly, other people’s imagination spurs on change, which inevitably alters our own perception as these imaginations become acknowledged and become a part of our shared reality. Advancements in society begin as nothing more than a thought or an idea, a seed planted in the minds of some brilliant people. In his publication “On the Origin of Species”, what Charles Darwin proposed was merely a thought. However, his imagination would eventually capture the attention and focus of many generations to come.   We establish a reality that is based not only on our own experiences and imaginations, but that of those around us.

If we apply too much pressure and allow our dreams and hopes or our past reality to become intertwined and dominant so that we no longer have control over them, then we risk of creating a vase that is disfigured. We can easily lose our control of our imagination and our past so that it manifests into an illusion that rampantly impedes and distorts our perception   Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, epitomises this notion through the character of Willy Lowman, as he becomes both terribly lost in a past in which he fictitiously creates. Willy Loman reinvents the past to help him cope with the harshness of the way his life has ended up, trying to convince himself that the situation was better before when he supposable “averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions”. In tough times, he constantly reverts to created image of his sons admiring him, constantly there to carry his bags, wash his cars and seek his guidance, telling him that they will “retire [him] for life”. In order to create the reality that we desire, one must take ownership of the hands that shape us and ensure that they do not control the vase that we create.

As we age, the soft and malleable clay of our childhood eventually starts to become hard as the final shape starts to take form. The form that eventuates cannot be anticipated until the very end as our experiences combined imagination provide the two crafting hands that takes individuals on a variety of possibilities. Alone the way, we are helped by those around us, with their memories and mental creations shaping our own.  However it is quintessential that to some extent that we remain in control as without guidance, the vases will turn out to be nothing more than a pile of unrecognisable messy dirt.

Human Courage in East Germany

Set in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Stasiland by Anna Funder, recreates a “land gone wrong” and attempts to explore the lasting influence that the meticulous and pervasive secret police agency, the Stasi, had on its own citizens. Funder focuses on elucidating the harrowing and extraordinary tales of individual characters as she tries to grasp a “perspective” on a “lost” society that was “built on lies”. She is motivated by the notion that “history is made of personal stories” and that there must have been someone out there who stood up against the duplicitous regime and the coercive and subversive tactics that were employed. Scheller’s suggestion that the stories of those who stood up against the regime would have “come out years ago” is proven wrong as she finds countless individual stories of fortitude in the face of oppression. However, the acts of defiance and bravery do not come without their costs as we encounter stories of agony, despair and longing which are interwoven.

In this “secret walled-in garden” Funder repeatedly illuminates the acts of resistance to the regime. She desperately seeks to make people understand that not everyone conformed to the degrading and demeaning tactics that Stasi employed. There are still fighters like Miriam and Julia, who have yet to have their story told.  Funder is inspired by Miriam’s fearlessness and plethora of provocative acts aimed at challenging the authoritarian society that she lived in. Through her first person narration, we inspired to feel awe at how at the age of sixteen, she demanded state “consultation” regarding the demolition of a nearby church and decided to try her luck at going over the wall, overcoming so many obstacles. Comparing her as nothing more than a “child” in “Beatrix potter’s garden” an allusion to Peter Rabbit when trying to climb over the wall, her fearlessness and capacity to take control of her life is captured.  Her ability to weave around the Stasi demands and gain control over her own life is continued in her adulthood. She does not conform to the Stasi interference of her husband’s funeral and continuously seeks answers despite being played “like a mouse” each time. Similarly, Julia exhibits qualities that Funder admires, how unlike others she didn’t “subordinate” herself “to authority”. She refuses the deal offered by Major N to be “with them” and takes a risk of bluffing that she will complain directly to Honecker. It is these acts of resisting that is the source of Funder’s admiration and motivation and through her journey she uncovers many.

The ability to stand up again in the face of despair and attempt to overcome the events of the past is uncovered Funder and one that underpins her whole investigation. The ramifications of the Stasi grip on the mind can be long lasting and have a detrimental effect on the psychological wellbeing of many individuals. Funder admires Frau Paul’s resilience in being able to return to Hohenschönhausen prison, “the place that broke her” and work as a tour guide telling people about “instruments deigned for indignity”. Despite the threats from former Stasi officers and the constant reminders of “deciding against [her] son”, Frau Paul wants to determine her own life and face the horrifying facts of her past. She goes from being someone “who is unable to go forwards into her own future” to tackling it directly by going to. In the same way, Julia represents someone who willing to develop a “forward looking-faith” and come out of her “gap” with “reality and fiction”.  Her  longing for transformation is evident when at the end of the book she goes to San Francisco and works in a feminist bookshop resisting the urge to “whisk back” into her “shell”. Funder both finds and goes through the journeys of individuals who endeavour to regain their grip on life, to once again find meaning in it that the Stasi irrevocably destroyed.

At the same time, Funder also uncovers the suffering and displacement that one endures. As architects of the soul and “Faustian bargain hunters”, the Stasi with their “instruments”, permanently destroyed the lives of many innocent people. For many they cannot ever truly “destroy [the] past” as for them the horrors of experiences are “not ever, really over”. Despite Miriam’s seemingly newfound “light” in life in the last chapter titled “Miriam and Charlie”, Funder still observes that “for now the beasts are all in their cages” and that all that has changed is that she “blowing smoke” now.  This demonstrates to the reader how in many ways, despite this newfound forward mentality, the psychological damage cannot be easily reversed. “So slender and crumpled”, Miriam is still stuck in a tower, searching for answers about Charlie, which won’t come for another “375 years”. Whilst not as obvious, the psychological calamity that was imposed on Herr Koch likewise causes perpetual misery. He is a victim of the regime that he was brought up to believe in. In the face of the truth, Koch still maintains his “lone crusader” stance, for to deny the past is to deny the significance of his life. Funder encapsulates the sadness in his story how he was “trained” as a “poster boy for the new regime” and like Miriam is forced to seek a sense of significance in life through the seemingly small victories, displayed through the sentimental value that he places on the “cheap” plastic plate. The pernicious grasp that the Stasi had on their citizens is enduring and inescapable no matter if they resisted or abided by it.

The denial from the perpetrators and many of the citizens of the wrongdoing of the GDR astounds Funder as she tries to find an explanation for their mentality.  Instead of uncovering truths about regret, Funder is surprised by the many of the reactions how for many of them there exists a deep sense of “Ostalgie”, the longing for the East to once again come back. She burlesques Professor Mushroom’s fondness upon GDR as a place of security, jobs and cheap bear and lampoons at the suggesting that if people “didn’t buck the system that it wouldn’t harm” them. Equivalently, von Schnitzler’s view is a source of ridicule for Funder which we can see through the lack of respect that is placed upon his censored name in the chapter heading and his flawed thinking countered through the subjective narration of Funder. She is in disbelief how he can “switch from one view to another with frightening ease” and is still able to turn “inhumanity into humanity”, “justifying” the existence of the Wall. For many, the “Wall persists… as something they might hope one day will come again” and is a notion that Funder find both intriguing yet horrifying.

Funder undergoes an “adventure” in a distorted version of “Alice in Wonderland” as she rediscovers and a tries to grasp a “perspective” of a society where “what was said was not real and what was real was not allowed”. In a world that defies logic, Funder divulges into the lives of both the victims and perpetrators and unravels more than just stories of the fearlessness and determination. Both the lingering impact that these acts of physical and moral courage can have on their lives and the immutable mentality of some are omnipresent throughout the book.

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Frau Paul: A tragic victim of the Stasi

“Frau Paul is the most damaged character in the text.” Discuss

Set in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stasiland by Anna Funder, recreates a “land gone wrong” and attempts to explore the lasting influence that the meticulous and pervasive secret police agency, the Stasi had on its own citizens. Throughout the text Funder focuses on elucidating the harrowing and extraordinary tales of individual characters as she tries to grasp the sheer extent of the damage inflicted by a society that was “built on lies”. Each of the characters that Funder explores, are to some extent affected by the duplicitous regime as she paints everyone as a “victim”. The effects of the subversive and coercive tactics that the Stasi employed have a greater effect for some than others. Through these explorations of “personal stories”, Funder uncovers the piteous story of Frau Paul, who because of the Stasi’s incessant need to control everyone in a “secret walled-in garden”, is reduced to a “lonely, teary guilt-wracked wreck”.  Whilst the degrading and demeaning effects of the Stasi control is clearly palpable through her heartbreaking story of being separated from her critically ill son and her injurious incarceration in Hohenschönhausen, the story of Miriam and many of the Stasi men are more poignant.

Despite the adversity that many of the victims of the GDR regime faced during their life, there are people who exhibit the ability to fight against forgetting. Even though Funder shows the damage of the psychological calamity that was imposed on Frau Paul through her “muddled” and “peppered” voice, she admires her courage that she exhibits even to this day.   Her willingness to some extent, face the past is a source of admiration for other people, including Funder who tries to find other people who “confronted the regime”.  Karl Wilhelm Fricke, Frau Paul’s hero dubs her as a “very courageous woman” for both what she has done in the past and what she is doing currently. Frau Paul’s “soul” has ultimately been “buckled out of shape, forever” and what Funder suggests here is an individual whose very being has been distorted and badly hurt. Nonetheless; she still exhibits the fighting spirit that she had when she rejected “the deal” even though she doesn’t admit it anymore. She is unwilling to take the easier emotional path and forget the past; Frau Paul is able to return to Hohenschönhausen prison, “the place that broke her” and still work as a tour guide telling people about instruments “designed for indignity. She sees guilt from another perspective and confronts it by educating people about the true horrors of the GDR which the city as a collective is attempting to conceal “behind glass” to “colour a cheap and nasty World golden”. This  kind of courage contrasts to the stories of many other characters that she explores such as Miriam and Julia who both seems to “whisk” back into their shell “at the slightest sign of contact” with other individuals.

Miriam Weber who despite her tremendous courage, is an individual who has undergone “internal emigration”, forever stuck in the past of inventive malice, left with questions that will always remain unanswered. Funder believes that to be able to truly understand the scope of the suffering that Miriam endures, she will have to “explain other things around it”, bookending the novel with her story. Her victimisation stemmed from a single act of youthful courage resulting in a harrowing sequence of humiliation at the hands of the unyielding Stasi forcing her to live only a half-life. At the age of sixteen she become an “enemy of the state”, charged with the crime of “sedition” for distributing pamphlets criticising their Communist overlords. The notion of being an “enemy of the state” is one that she cannot escape and haunts her for the rest of her life. Although proud of her actions, Funder emphasises the underlying distraught in Miriam’s tone with her first person narrative powers which she describes as being the “disbelief that this country enemy of its own children”. Miriam cannot supress her scars inflicted by the Stasi as she starts to “sweat and go cold” in small spaces because of her trauma and lives in a place where “anyone” could be seen “coming”. As Funder observes, Miriam is an individual who “brave and strong and broken all at once”. For Miriam, Funder explains that her past “stopped when Charlie died”, how she now sees herself as being “no longer human”, her existence “no longer real to her”. This despairing language gestures to the extend Miriam is in the past, forever searching for answers, unable to be “released into a new life”.

Whilst not as obvious, many of the Stasi men eventually became imprisoned by the same views that they indoctrinated, unable to move on, having to deal with finding out that what they were “brought up” to believe was now considered a lie. They are haunted by the past, unwilling to deny it and desperate to speak to Funder to give “their side of history” so that their life maintained some meaning. Unknowing, they themselves have been manipulated by the “Faustian bargain hunters”. Herr Koch, a “long crusader against forgetting” is painted by Funder as essentially a victim of the regime, brought up under a “religion” like society that twisted his childhood so that he became “trained” as a “poster boy for the new regime”. These vivid description gestures to the way individuals like Herr Koch were similarly shaped and forced to embody repressive views of the GDR. In many ways, his story parallels the tragic events that unfold in Miriam’s life and the lasting influence that it has on her life where she was left with many “tics”. Herr Koch’s world similarly “broke apart” when the Stasi manipulates his wife to divorce him and finds out that what he was brought up to believe was a false, exacerbated by his father not believing in what he was forced to teach. In the end, he too was forced to seek some sense of control through the seemingly small victories against the regime, highlighted through the sentimental value that he places on the cheap plate that he stole. Despite all the truths he finds out, Funder encapsulates the sadness in his inability to change his views accordingly in her second meeting him, stating that “the Wall is the things that defined him, and he will not let it go”. In the same way, Herr Winz who has a deep sense of “Ostalgie” is unable to let go of the past as for him his world was so suddenly turned upside down. Whilst physically living under a united Germany, Her Winz mental reality is still clinging onto the past.  He still plays “mind games seven years after the fall of the Wall”, showing how pathetically out of touch he is.  For these people, the process of looking forward is one that is unimaginable. They are unable to comprehend that the version of the ideological truth that they were brought up to believe just vanish leaving them with a life that all of a sudden had no significance.

Funder undergoes an adventure in a distorted version of “Alice in Wonderland” as she rediscovers and a tries to grasp a perspective of a society where “what was said was not real and what was real was not allowed”. In a world that defies logic, there are those that are able to face up to the horrors of the brutality that one endured and tell the world about it.  We feel awe at Frau Paul’s bravery who is able show people the prison which Funder describes as “the smell of misery”. Whilst she is clearly damaged by the pervasive methods that the Stasi employed, there are those that are so severely impacted psychologically, that they are forever stuck in an endless loop searching to find answers and meaning in their life. Miriam tragically is one of those individuals who are consumed by a past created by the Stasi unable to find closure and described by Funder as a “maiden blowing smoke in her tower”.

 

West Berlin policemen and East German soldiers face each other after a young girl made it across the border, 1955

Stasiland: “A land gone wrong”

“The key themes and ideas of Stasiland are developed as much by the structure of the text as they are by the description and dialogue.” Discuss

Set in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stasiland, by Anna Funder, recreates a “land gone wrong” and attempts to explore the lasting influence that the meticulous and pervasive secret police agency, the Stasi had on its own citizens. A work of literary journalism that deviates from the traditional modes of historiography, Funder uses a unique mix of styles to elucidate and convey the extraordinary courage displayed as well as show the perpetual misery endured by the victims living in a society “built on lies. Whilst the structure and the order in which Funder presents the individual stories is important in conveying the key themes and ideas, her first person precise and metaphorical language in conjunction with the use of dialogue plays a greater role especially in portraying the Stasi as “innovators” and “Faustian bargain hunters” and the pervading lingering impact they still have in the minds of people.

The way Funder orders the chapters is essential in maintaining cohesion and an overarching driving force in the conveying the text’s key idea that understanding the immeasurable suffering and displacement endured by victims through an outsider perspective is hard. The story of Miriam bookends the text and motivates Funder to undertake her own personal journey. Funder meets her at the beginning in 1996 and at the end in 2000. In between these chapters, Funder introduces a number of characters, both victims and perpetrators that have equally extraordinary tales, as she believes that to be able to comprehend and communicate Miriam’s story, she will have to “explain other things around it”.  For each of these character’s she gives them each an individual chance to share their harrowing stories in their own little chapter, a luxury that was denied by the Stasi. The large amount of stories that remain distinctly separate as none of the characters meet each other serves to underscore the widespread psychological grip that they still maintain.  At the start, she fails to comprehend how a society is able to turn its “own children” into “enemies”, how “like fiction” they were broken. As the book progresses, through Funder’s narrations, it is evident that she attempts to answer some of these questions, offering explanations such as it was the “German mentality” where it as a “certain drive for order and thoroughness and stuff like that”. The readers additionally see Funder physically trying to imagine the trauma and fear by visiting the place where Miriam tried to escape, showing that her journey is structured around plot of understanding Miriam’s story. Uncovering Miriam’s “horror romance” provides the gel that glues all the other stories together, providing a forward moving plot and themes that are found in a narrative style book.

Furthermore, Funder contextualises the individual stories with historical events and facts to enhance the sheer brutality that was exacted by the Stasi and help the readers understand the degradation experienced. Importantly these events are not explained in a chronological order as “memories do not come in the right order” deviating from the traditional methods of historiography and using events to vividly paint “portraits of people”. She visits the Stasi HQ to explain the role of GDR leader Erick Honecker before starting her interviews with the Stasi people in order to give readers an insight to the “incriminating” work they participated in. This helps Funder accentuate the absurdity in the arguments of Herr Winz and Von Schnitzler, people whose actions like Erich Honecker contributed to “turning inhumanity into humanity”.  In the text, the explanation of the fall the wall precedes the building of the wall as time oscillates. The historical framework of the construction of the wall is used to by Funder to  convey Herr Koch’s depiction of the “anti-fascist protective measure” and emphasize personal involvement and how he is now unable to let go of this personal connection, embarking on a “lone [crusade] against forgetting”. Additionally, factual evidence such as the statistics of “one Stasi informer to every 6.5 citizens” and “375 years” is employed to instil a pure sense of awe in the reader at the scale of Stasi operation. This helps them grasp important themes and ideas conveyed by Funder in Stasiland.

However, Funder’s precise and metaphorical language it plays a greater role in exhibiting the crucial themes and concepts in the text as it reinstates the individuality that these documents irrevocably destroyed, a need that motivates her. Her words are often descriptive, describing the smallest detail about people and the events that she witnesses which constructs a convincing characters and settings and in many ways gives them the respect that she thinks they deserve. She vividly describes the beautiful “crossed” eye mother with the “pierced nose”, Hagen Koch with his “glow” and Julia’s tendency to “whisk back” into her “shell”. Whilst the structure of Miriam’s story provides an central emphasis, it is Funder’s highly metaphorical language that truly expresses the true extent to which Miriam’s present is “no longer real to her”, destroyed by Stasi and their inventive malice. When Funder first meets Miriam immediately observing Miriam as a “small still women in a stream of alighting passenger”, highlighting the fragility of her soul. She shows that whilst everyone is moving forward, Miriam is standing still, being dragged back by a past that haunts Despite Miriam’s seemingly newfound “light” in life in the last chapter titled “Miriam and Charlie”, Funder still observes that “for now the beasts are all in their cages” and that all that has changed is that she “blowing smoke” now.  Similarly, Julia’s pain and suffering is captured by Funder through her detailed descriptions, observing how as Julia recounts her horrific past, she recedes into a “small black ball” formed from the “layers of black” she is wearing, staring out into “middle distance”. The concluding image that Funder leaves us with is of a “child”, still “messy blond and vulnerable”. This demonstrates to the reader how in many ways, despite both these characters newfound forward mentality, the psychological damage cannot be easily reversed, a theme that pervades in the text.

The contrast in her dialogue between the Stasi perpetrators and the victims of a ubiquitous regime helps establish Stasiland as a work of literary journalism. The persistent use of interjections coupled with the use of exclamation marks and dashes helps convey her admonishment and utter disbelief towards the absurd view presented Von Schnitzler and Professor Mushroom. She burlesques Professor Mushroom’s fondness upon GDR as a place of security, jobs and cheap bear and condescendingly lampoons at the suggesting that if people “didn’t buck the system that it wouldn’t harm” them. Similarly, Funder characterises Von Schnitzler’s zealous and stubborn belief that the Wall was the “most useful construction” through the use of her authoritarian voice, dismissing his views as a “tantrum engineered to frighten”. Yet the way she presents her dialogue when she interviews the victims develops another focus as she tries to express the stories of those who were altered by the coercive and subversive tactic that the Stasi employed. Funder uses dialogue sparingly, as she “sits light” when listening to Julia’s “long story”, allowing her the chance to retell her horrific recount of “falling through the gap between… fiction and reality”, amplifying some of terrors that she went through such as being “dragged her up by the hair” in the prison. Funder uses dialogue only as a guiding hand for many of the victims. The differing uses of dialogue, allowing the victims of the regime to tell their story and luxury she does not allow for the perpetrators demonstrates Funder’s empathy and respects towards the victims.

Funder undergoes an adventure in a distorted version of “Alice in Wonderland” as she rediscovers and a tries to grasp a perspective of a society where “what was said was not real and what was real was not allowed”. In an attempt to understand and convey a world that defies logic, Stasiland uses a composite of various writing styles that come together and capture a vanished time. Nevertheless, it is Funder’s precise characterisation using her first-person powers of dialogue and description that she able to restore the identity and humanity to the victims that the Stasi permanently denied.