The public underground toilets of Alexanderplatz, Berlin in the early 1990s.
It's the wee hours and it's snowing outside onto the vast tarmac and concrete rectangle of the empty square. In the toilets, drunken toothless men zip up their flies. The smell of disinfectant and urine, the sight of vomit stains and cigarette butts.
You bet that not many books begin in a less glamorous setting.
What's even more unusual is the way the author introduces herself: hungover and bumping into rubbish bins, memories of her drinking session at the pub only a "smoky blur".
Certainly, Miss Funder doesn't gain much credibility as a reliable journalist with such an overture. As long as Hunter S. Thompson is not her mentor as a gonzo reporter.
Just like the actual aims and reputation of Anna Funder in Berlin, "Stasiland" took its time to convince me.
This is a book with a clumsy and uncertain beginning. The author seems to avoid at any rate the hard task of introducing her readers to the once called German Democratic Republic (GDR).
What Miss Funder focuses on and seeks for are the relevant details that made the big picture: the personal stories of some of those who lived in the GDR.
But this summon of the drowned and the saved after the collapse of East Germany between 1989 and 1990, develops very slowly.
At first, it looks like the author herself treats the whole thing as a pastime inbetween her part-time job on TV and drinking bouts at the Berlinese pubs.
Then, little by little, Anna Funder finds her angle and "Stasiland" eventually takes off as a very good book with that extra bit of research that fills the gap in each personal account.
Even though, the author puts too much of herself into the book (and seems to enjoy despising herself, for what it's worth), this was an interesting and important reading.
Just don't leaf through "Stasiland" expecting to find much of the remorse and redemption of the Stasi agent portrayed in the movie "The Lives of the Others". Actually, the former Stasi agents Anna Funder meets up after putting an insertion on a local newspaper are all but regretful for what they did and look pretty carefree in the new post GDR years.
As for those who were the victims of the Stasi apparatus, the author gets the credit to pick up a few but significant and rather poignant personal stories.
What I liked is the way physically or/and psychologically tortured people recount their awful and often absurd experiences chatting with Miss Funder in a lucid and analytical way.
What didn't convince me is the counterposition that shows men as the only enforcers and women as their chief victims. I believe this choice is not deliberate and is due to the fact that Funder got in touch more easily with women telling her their private stories while in Berlin. At the same time, there were statistically more chances that former Stasi agents contacting the author (she calls them "my Stasi men") were male. But still.
"Stasiland" does have its flaws, but it's a refreshing book and a honest collection of first hand accounts on the GDR, that dinosaur of a blabbermouth nation once called East Germany.