‘Truth can be stranger – and more fascinating – than fiction.’ (1) Anna Funder’s Stasiland repeatedly invoked comments like this when it was published in 2002 – understandably, since this gifted Australian writer made the strange world of post-war East Germany the subject of her research. Behind the Berlin Wall was an enclosed world where the state sponsored a system to spy on its own citizens. The Stasi spies used fake wigs and moustaches, ‘women’s handbags with built-in microphones disguised as flower petals’, electronic bugs hidden in pot plants and light fittings and, most bizarrely of all, ‘smell sampling’. If you were a suspected dissident, your (unwashed) underwear could be stolen and placed in a labelled jar. Then, if trained sniffer dogs detected your ‘essence’ at a suspected illegal meeting place, you could be found and taken in for ‘questioning’.
Anna Funder recreates ‘this land gone wrong’ with skill and passion. Her patient and thorough research – in archives, through interviews, through observation – is brought to life by the style of her writing and her use of language. This is creative non-fiction at its best: true stories told with literary techniques. Funder appears as a character in her own work – the first sentence of Stasiland reads ‘I am hungover and steer myself like a car through the crowds at Alexanderplatz station.’ The immediacy and intimacy of her writing give the book its power and memorability. Reviewers and critics rightly praised her ‘rare literary flair’ and ‘novelist’s sensibilities’.
I can’t recommend Stasiland highly enough. It’s one of the most emotionally moving books that I’ve ever read, and it inspired my second visit to Berlin. I wanted to see for myself what was left of The Wall, the memorials for the men and women who died under this bleak regime and the changed face of what was once ‘this land gone wrong.’