Undercover: the price Anna Funder paid for Stasiland's success

Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning author Anna Funder. Photo: Dan Callister
Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning author Anna Funder. Photo: Dan Callister


Anna Funder's first book, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, has already had a good life. Published in 2003, it won awards, was praised by J. M. Coetzee, Claire Tomalin, Tom Hanks and critics worldwide, and is on school and university reading lists. Now there's a beautiful new edition from The Folio Society in London, which publishes illustrated hardcover versions of old and modern classics. A lovely touch (a surprise even to Funder) is that the book comes in an optimistic yellow case. The Australian author's doggedly researched and vividly told stories about ordinary people who lived under the boot of the Stasi are accompanied by her snapshots of people and grim places, taken at the time for her own records. "Many of the people are dead and the photographs bear witness to them," she says.

Funder had hoped to include the work of Miriam, one of her subjects, who had shot "exquisite" scenes of crumbling buildings behind the wall. But Miriam found it impossible to reopen her suitcase of memories and Funder says, "I felt asking any more of her was going too far". In a new introduction Funder writes about the 22 German publishers who rejected the book before one accepted, the ex-Stasi men who attended the launch in Leipzig, and the censorship that followed. Funder had thought her subjects would be hailed as heroes for their bravery, but learnt "the horrible irony of history" that justice often comes too late if at all. Still she believes it is better to remember than to forget.

"I some ways I was naive," she says. "The persona in the book is more naive than I was, to allow me to describe things to the reader that I actually knew. I was naive about the reception the book would have in Germany. If you have a society that is divided into victim, hero and villain there are going to be silences. But the book hit its mark in a weird way."

After a stint in New York, Funder is living back in Sydney and working on her second novel and a collection fon non-fiction, while her Miles Franklin Award-winning first novel, All That I Am, is being adapted to film.


There has been much discussion about the trend for books with "girl" in the title, especially in the crime genre. It took off with Stieg Larsson'sThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and has spawned the recent bestsellers Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins,The Girls by Emma Cline among others. Canadian novelist Emily St John Mandel analysed data for 810 adult "girl" books from the Goodreads site to find 65 per cent were about women and 15 per cent of them were killed off, more often if the author was male. "Girl" has connotations of vulnerability, suggests a book editor, and condescension, say some critics. Perhaps the first girl of 2017 is J.P. Delaney's psychological thriller The Girl Before (Quercus, January). Delaney is the pseudonym of an author who has written award-winning fiction under other names, gender unknown. There are also "boy" books, such as Tim Winton's memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain, and Jimmy Barnes' autobiography, Working Class Boy, but those two deal with the author's childhood.

This story Undercover: the price Anna Funder paid for Stasiland's success first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.