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.

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2 thoughts on “Stasiland: “A land gone wrong”

  1. This is such a great review! I also recently read Stasiland and loved it even though some of the historical details were slightly incorrect, her writing style and journalism is absolutely​ superb. If you’re interested I’ve also written a review although I prefer your analysis of the text!!

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