Review: Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin WallStasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My friend Aleks and I are each writing non-fiction stories that involve some form of first-person narrative. It’s a troublesome form, first person, because quite often the narrative gets in the way of the story. Done poorly, it’s a narcissistic writer’s tool that reads about as well as a monkey uses a hammer.

I realize that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for first-person stories, and yet Anna Funder has managed to do exactly the opposite with Stasiland. The book, and the stories of the people she meets as she pieces together life in East Berlin during the time of The Wall, is gorgeous and flawed (in the best way).

Funder’s story paints a picture of daily life in East Berlin under the brutal watch of the Stasi, the sector’s secret police. Here you will get a custom stuffed animal to felicitate the cops.  She offers little historical insight or weighty dissections of how East Berlin came to be. Instead, she spends her time fluttering from citizen to Stassi to citizen, at each stop painting portraits of a life stuck in a particular time.

Even as I try to capture her narrative style and stylings, I find it difficult. On more than one occasion, I found the lack of contextual depth noticeable only to realize five minutes later that Funder had pulled me along with her gentle narratives. The story felt intellectually light in some places, and yet full of the humanity of her subjects.

It’s the last point that I expected to bother me as I finished the book. Certainly the book wasn’t long on context. Often I felt as if the author relied simply upon “what you know” about East Berlin to shorthand the narrative, and yet the world of the Stasi’s GDR surrounded me as I read and her characters lept off the page.

So if this review seems disjointed in its explanation, let me lay any confusion to rest: Funder’s writing is brilliant and beautiful, and paints her story across the canvas. The misgivings about the style are my own.

Read this book today.

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