Don’t pick of a copy of Stasiland, by Anna Funder, if you have work to do. I did the first time, and I nearly missed a deadline. I did it again this morning, intending to write a review, and my productivity dropped like a rock again. Consider yourselves warned.

It’s not exactly the kind of book one expects from a young Australian working in television.

The book’s first conversation takes place in a public restroom. The author gets caught by the old lady minding the loo, who brags that a prince once came in and then invited her to his palace. But that was before the Wall fell, so she couldn’t go. Had she traveled since the changes, asks Funder. “Not yet. But I’d like to. Bali, something like that. Or China. Yes, China. You know what I’d really like to do? I’d really like to have me a look at that Wall of theirs.”

And it is to the Wall that everything in the book sooner or later returns. The Wall built to keep people in, the soldiers to stand guard on the Wall, the secret police to keep people in line, to spy on their fellows.

While it is fairly easy to say, yes, this is all well known. One in six of the GDR’s inhabitants was in some way connected to the Stasi. They ruined careers, wasted lives for no reason. In their latter years, they were not prolific murderers, but accomplished deadeners of the human spirit.

It’s another thing, though, to see the details. What imprisoning someone at 16 and excluding her from society afterward does to a person. How the state kills a nonconformist and then tries to cover it all up. The lies that informants told themselves. The evasions that they produce when confronted with their past.

‘A great many people were at the funeral [of my husband, who died in police custody],’ Miriam tells me, ‘but I think there were even more Stasi there.’ There was a van with long-range antennae for sound-recording equipment parked at the gates. There were men in the bushes with telephoto lenses. Everywhere you looked there were men with walkie-talkies. At the cemetery offices building work was going on: Stasi agents sat in pairs in the scaffolding.
‘Everyone, every single one of us was photographed. And you could see in advance the path the procession was to take from the chapel to the grave: it was marked at regular intervals all along by the Stasi men, just standing around.’ When they reached the grave, there were two of them sitting there on a trestle, ready to watch the whole thing.

Miriam’s husband, Charlie, had been brought in for questioning because he had applied to leave the GDR.

Fund talks not just to victims, but to former officers, and to nearly all stages in between. Including the Stasi people who went into private investigation afterward, the ones who went into intimidation, and the ones who pretended to do one or the other or both.

The reporting is first-rate, and the stories are simply told, though anything but simple in their repercussions. Just don’t pick it up if you have anything else on your agenda.

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