There were a couple of reviewers in the U.K. who, it seemed to me, reading between the lines, were unsettled both by the truth of the British appeasement of Hitler and its shocking effects on my characters’ lives, and by the hook into history that the novel very deliberately has. But I have to say that the reception of All That I Am has been pretty overwhelming, generally. The book has been five months on the bestseller list in Australia, twice at No. 1. It’s phenomenal, and very moving to me that these characters I’ve lived with for five years are finding such a contemporary resonance.
Stasiland was received with extreme hostility in parts of the former DDR, which is not surprising when you consider the reach of the Stasi’s information network (something like one informant per 6.5 inhabitants). How has the novel been received in Germany?
It won’t be out in Germany until 2013, so I’ll be able to tell you then. Stasiland had a divided reaction: People who had been in the resistance to the regime – whether active or passive – loved it. There would always be someone at a reading in a former East German city who’d say (after any forbidding ex-Stasi had scuttled out of the room), “Something just like that happened to me, my uncle disappeared,” or, “I was refused an education for reasons I was never told,” or other, shocking things, and then they’d ask, “Why does it take a foreigner to tell these stories?” On the other side, the ex-communist party members and ex-Stasi really, truly hated the book. They were not at all used to a world where they can be written about without being able to swiftly imprison their critic. In fact, a group of ex-Stasi sued my publisher for some of the (true) things I wrote about them (see page 85 in the English-language versions). But that’s a whole other story...
I’m expecting an easier reaction to All That I Am. I could be way wrong, but it is, after all, a book about some incredibly brave and wonderful Germans who resisted Hitler.
There is a lot about memory in the book. Given the distance from the events, as well as the astonishing speed of changes in the European political situation, do you think that people in Germany are beginning to forget? There has been so much war guilt and war writing over the past few decades. Is the urgency starting to fade?
Well, my novel is not about the war. It is set, for the most part, six years earlier than that. It is about seeing what is coming in the political landscape, seeing Hitler’s trampling on the democratic freedoms, and doing something about it. It is very hard to be prescient, and only history can tell if you were right. That’s what was so interesting to me about writing about that period, for a readership which does, in fact, know what came later, even though most of my characters didn’t live to see it.
But in short, no. I think what happened in Germany and Europe in the mid-20th century is shocking to us in Western culture, because Europe is at the heart of our sense of ourselves as civilized. That doesn’t fade.
What are the best German-language novels about either 20th-century events in Germany or living under the different totalitarian regimes that ruled Germany during the same period?
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (Italian, originally), any Bertolt Brecht works, any Thomas Mann, Hans Fallada’s A Small Circus, Klaus Mann’s Mephisto , A Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous, and Edgar Hilsenrath’s Der Nazi und der Friseur [The Nazi and the Barber]as well as Nacht [Night]… it’s a long, long list.
J.C. Sutcliffe spent last summer living in Germany.