Anna Funder’s Stasiland and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go bring together two complex, poignant worlds of “personal stories” and subjective narration of what once was, an individual's place in history and its aftermath, especially when the world attempts to move on.
Establishing a literary allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the title, Funder’s narrator of Anna fills the role of Alice as she stumbles upon and explores the absurd and unjust world of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Driven by an almost naive curiosity, akin to Alice herself, Funder conducts extensive interviewing to uncover not only the stories and experiences of the victims of the regime, but also of the Stasi, the “internal army by which the government kept control”. Through her literary journalism, Funder creates an intimate and sensory experience for the reader, extending beyond factual occurrences to capture the “horror-romance” of East Germany, “a country which no longer exists” but its inhabitants, victims and perpetrators continue to live on.
TIP - Research the history of the German Democratic Republic, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and the influence of the Soviet Union within East Germany, in contrast to West Germany. Understanding the backbone of “this land gone wrong” in which Funder delves into gives much greater context for the significance of her work and ideas in which you can explore in your writing.
Never Let Me Go
Ishiguro delves into human mortality through the platform of a science fiction world, where the focus is ultimately on the prospect of an existence where one’s life is knowingly shortened, and what becomes important with such a backdrop. Readers are introduced to the concept of ‘clones’, existing as live incubators of organs that will be later harvested for others. Perceived by society as less than humans, Ishiguro’s narrative focuses on clones who spent time at Hailsham, a boarding school ‘experiment’ in England which attempted to provide a more ‘humane’ education and upbringing for clones, and their sheltered perspectives on their existence, their mortality and purpose.
Authors’ views and values
Why have Funder and Ishiguro written what they have written?
Funder’s dogged pursuit to uncover and reveal the “portraits” of individuals who lived through the GDR was prompted by West Germany’s dismissal of, and use of stereotypes when these individuals were concerned, and the assumption that “no-one is interested in these people”. She discovers that “things have been put behind glass”, in the forms of museums and metaphorical mausoleums, “but they are not yet over”. Stasiland therefore acts as a work that champions the importance of memory, of remembering and of history, as Sisyphean of a task as this inevitably is because it is “working… against time”. In addition, Funder’s purposeful choice to include the perspectives of the Stasi themselves opens up another realm of understanding to the reader. It allows the audience to examine the Stasi's motives and justifications, their humanity or lack thereof, of the lessons learnt and unlearnt, as a means of framing the entire regime and of framing the spectrum of humanity.
Whilst Ishiguro’s universe differs greatly when placed alongside Stasiland, his characters also belong to a world that no longer exists, as their Hailsham upbringing evolves into a historical artefact, reflective of a world that “wanted [the clones] back in the shadows” and which remained oblivious to the reality of the clones’ existence. Ishiguro gives voice to the clones; the “poor creatures” who otherwise possessed no voice or recognised humanity in this world, and no purpose apart from their utility as organ donors. These individuals are shown to be no less human than you and I, and it is in their sheltered lives, headed towards “wherever it was [they were] supposed to be”, which permits the reader to examine their own life purpose and meaning, and how a clone’s existence is ultimately reduced in not only length, but also ability and capacity.
Both texts confront uncomfortable truths about humanity and reality, the treatment that certain individuals were unfortunately subjected to which resulted in their dehumanising, and which “broke” them, sooner or later.
TIP - Reframe this question for any text you are studying - including text response! There is intent and purpose underlying each and every text that is definitely worthy of thorough unpacking and consideration; the thinking you will do will help to further your analysis and comparison considerably.
Themes and Comparison
What are the big ideas underpinning the texts? How are they explored? What sorts of comparisons can be drawn between the two texts?
At LSG, we use the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy to help us easily find points of similarity and difference. This is particularly important when it comes to essay writing, because you want to know that you're coming up with unique comparative points (compared to the rest of the Victorian cohort!). I don't discuss this strategy in detail here, but if you're interested, check out my How To Write A Killer Comparative. I use this strategy throughout my analysis of the following themes.
Stasiland: As prompted by the VCAA 2015 exam, the GDR is indeed ‘cruel and absurd’, especially in the methods the nation constructed and enforced this society, as this ultimately broke the souls of innocent individuals, and left questions unanswered and scars unhealed for many. It showcases how what could potentially be described as 'idealistic' in terms of government control can become grotesque, how otherworldly and Orwellian this recent history seems, and how the perspectives of victim, perpetrator, outsider and more are not restricted to the land of the GDR, but to today as well. In addition, as Funder discovers, these perspectives are closely intertwined, in which certain individuals of the Stasi were victimised too, and could not remain in the "group in the know [as] one of the unmolested".
Never Let Me Go: The novel’s context of clones is removed from the reality that readers are familiar with, and as Ishiguro focuses on the clones’ perspectives throughout, there always remains an element that feels 'off' and ’not quite right’ about who they are and the purpose of their existence. Whilst the context of Never Let Me Go differs greatly from a regime with "the most perfected surveillance state of all time", it highlights an unsettling reality, in which scientific advancement has resulted in a society benefitting from the clones' existence and from organ harvesting, but who are also rejecting of the possibility of their humanity. The clones may never be able to perceive and fully understand this cruelty or absurdity themselves, but this does not mean they are not victims of this, for a fate that they could not choose.
Possible points for comparison: The victimisation of individuals in both texts, whether it was internalised or ushered into oblivion is central to the absurd worlds of Stasiland and Never Let Me Go. The clones are in a way, victims from birth, and unable to avoid their shortened existence and purpose, whereas those in the GDR who were subjected to surveillance, interrogation, torture, etc. became ensnared and damaged beyond repair; the aftermath of which they were unable to escape from. However, the closing of Hailsham and the falling of the Berlin Wall spell out different fates in the two texts - those in Stasiland may be "fettered" by their past that is "not ever, really, over", but are provided a future in which there is hope for rebirth in the "green", "lush" city of Berlin and beyond. On the contrary, the clones are only able to move toward their fate, towards "wherever it was [they are] supposed to be" and towards completion. Coupled with the naivety accompanying the clones' existence, their acceptance of what is ahead and the lack of awareness surrounding their victimisation, readers are prompted to consider the cruelty of such existence, and whether there is greater tragedy in having your "soul buckled out of shape, forever", or in never knowing who you really are.
The act of remembering
Stasiland: In discussing and unearthing a recent history of a "bygone world" that many individuals wish to "pretend it was never there", Funder's attempt to create and immortalise "portraits" of East Germans raises questions about how events and lives are remembered and forgotten. Especially when elements of this past in the GDR could not be "pinned down by facts, or documents", the detrimental impact of a lack of recognition and acknowledgement of one's past, especially one filled with trauma, is thereby highlighted by Funder. When the rest of the world deems the GDR and the Stasi to only belong "behind glass" in museums and yet it is "not yet over" for those who are still suffering and carrying scars, physical and psychological, the purpose of Stasiland rings clear and true. Whilst it is a Sisyphean attempt, "working against forgetting, and against time", through Stasiland, Funder ultimately gives a voice to the "personal stories" comprising history, before there are "none left".
Never Let Me Go: Through the lens of Kathy H's narration and the recollection of her memories surrounding her upbringing, readers uncover the pieces of her existence as moments of her past begin "tugging at [her] mind". Memory itself can be fickle, recording and preserving certain experiences but not others, and as time passes, "fading surprisingly quickly" before being lost in the ether of one's past. Ishiguro's continual mention of Kathy's memories of an event, of her years at Hailsham and beyond almost lulls the reader into overlooking this element of the narration - in which the reader's understanding is built upon an uncertain and incomplete foundation of facts; similar to how the clones' "sheltered" understanding of their world came to be. After Hailsham closes, its existence recedes into the memories of the clones, and although Kathy declares that the memories will be retained "safely in [her] head", upon her completion, this will also be lost, and Hailsham will be further diminished in history as a 'failed experiment' and one day forgotten.
Possible points for comparison: The valiant efforts to remember and preserve the once-was is woven into the fabric of both texts, despite the inevitability of forgetting as death and 'completion' claims those who lived through East Germany and Hailsham respectively. When the recent history of the GDR becomes a "lost world", and the importance of remembering what transpired is being superseded by the innovation and process of the present, it opens up room for the same mistakes of the past to be made again. Hailsham was an attempt to create a more idealised and humane upbringing for the clones, and to showcase their humanity in a society which rejected this, and the boarding school's closure reflects a failure in which any previous successes will never be acknowledged. Memory, and by extension, one's understanding of the past is what enables change in the future; in attitude, in approach, in the treatment of others, in decisions, in growth, as an individual and as a whole. With its gradual loss, it may also be ineluctable that history repeats itself in one way or another.
Subjective narration, stories and lives
Stasiland: Stasiland itself is comprised of the stories of human lives, and includes various individuals' tenacity, strength and courage to their vices, cruelty and cowardice. By seeking out not only those who were victims of the regime but also perpetrators, Funder examines the many complex facets of human nature and the irreversible impact of the GDR on East Germans and who they became or were broken into. However, the personal involvement of Anna as a narrator and most importantly, as an outsider to the GDR provides a subjective perspective of this history. Whilst this has received criticism, it is important to consider how the human experience itself is subjective, as is never being able to truly understand another individual's story as the exact experience is theirs alone to hold and perhaps be "fettered" to; both of which are evident in Stasiland.
Never Let Me Go: Ishiguro constructs a narrative in which Kathy H and the clones are assumed human individuals from the text’s introduction, and it is only as the clones uncover how they may be "troubling and strange" that the reader gains a sense of how they are perceived in society as sub-human. However, the pre-determined fate and mortality of these "poor creatures", especially as they are born and 'complete' seemingly without a scope of awareness beyond their exposure during their upbringing and their sole purpose as organ donors - renders their lives even more heart wrenching and tragic - and human. The simplicity with which Ishiguro details the musings and reflections of Kathy H, and in the concluding moment of her imagined fantasy of Tommy, as not "out of control" as she may felt, readers cannot ignore the stark juxtaposition with the circumstances of her existence, in which she ultimately has no control over her identity as a clone. To grasp autonomy, to defy and deviate from being "wherever it was [she] was supposed to be", even for a moment, Ishiguro portrays a courage which is undoubtedly human.
Possible points for comparison: When faced with the stories of lives not our own, but each individual possessing elements which resonate and resemble us, it is much more possible to understand their struggles, their intentions and their experiences. Consider the story behind each face, each character, each name, not only in these two texts but also other texts and even our lives, as we are fundamentally more similar than different when compared to each other, even in the face of separation and distinction.
Ultimately, Funder and Ishiguro's texts probe the existential question of what it means to be human and what defines one's identity, and how it is shaped by experience, fate, intentions and actions. Question the texts, question the characters, question yourselves, and you'll discover worlds and perspectives closer to home than the GDR or Hailsham may initially seem.