In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts, by Eugen Ruge, Rowohlt, 426 pp, ISBN: 978-3498057862
In October 2011 Eugen Ruge was awarded the prestigious German Book Prize for his novel In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (In Times of Fading Light). The seven-member jury saw in this family saga a fitting reflection of East German history: “He manages to tame the experiences of four generations over fifty years into a dramatically refined composition. His book tells the story of the socialist utopia, the price it demands of the individual, and its gradual extinction.” The critical acclaim which greeted the publication was all the more remarkable given that In Times of Fading Light was the fifty-seven-year-old author’s debut novel.
Ruge’s fascinating text about the rise and fall of communism, as played out in one East German family, has strongly autobiographical overtones. When asked in an interview about the significance of the fading light to which the title refers, the author responded that his story was about the “fading away of an order, of a country, of an idea, and of a family – my family”.
Eugen Ruge was born in the Ural region of Siberia in 1954. His father, Wolfgang, had fled to Russia from Nazi Germany. Following the outbreak of World War II, he was deported to a forced labour camp in Siberia. He returned to East Berlin in 1956 with his wife and young son. Just like his fictional counterpart Kurt Umnitzer, Wolfgang Ruge was later to become an eminent historian in the German Democratic Republic. Interestingly, he encouraged his son to pursue his studies in mathematics at East Berlin’s Humboldt University because mathematics, unlike history, was a domain which he described as “free of ideology”. Having completed his studies, Eugen Ruge worked in Potsdam as a researcher at the Central Institute for Geophysics, which was part of the GDR’s Academy of Sciences. In the mid-1980s he began his writing career, composing radio dramas, documentary films and screenplays. Like his fictional alter ego Alexander, he defected to the West shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In an interview Ruge elaborates upon his decision to leave the GDR in 1988: “I saw no future for the country. I saw no hope for renewal, no hope that democratic socialism would come.”
In Times of Fading Light had a long germination period. Ruge admits that he had made several unsuccessful attempts in the preceding twenty years to write his family story. “There is a time for memories,” the East German author Monika Maron announces in the very opening sequence of her family story Pawels Briefe (Pavel’s Letters), published in 1999. This observation seems to imply that there is an opportune or, at the very least, an enabling time for recalling certain memories. For Maron, whose text captures in quite devastating fashion the fragmented experience of twentieth century German history, reconstructing the past of her maternal grandparents only became possible after the collapse of the GDR. In Ruge’s case, the enabling time came after his father’s death in 2006; the necessary distance from the old political order facilitated the writing process, as the author explains in an interview. Indeed, contrary to the tendency in post-Wende literature to devalue life in the GDR by portraying the state in a relentlessly critical light, Ruge’s impetus for writing arose from the need to convince himself that this was, in fact, “a life worth living”.
In the two decades since the implosion of the GDR, the German literary landscape has seen the emergence of the multi-generational story as a genre which seeks to explore the country’s relationship with its recent divided past. Pavel’s Letters is one such text; the author situates her turbulent family biography within the interstices of twentieth century German history. Maron is determined to probe at those generational memory gaps which inform her family story and thus arrive at a better understanding of her own present. The popularity of Uwe Tellkamp’s sprawling epic Der Turm (The Tower), which won the 2008 German Book Prize and retained the number one position on the bestseller list for weeks, is evidence of this willingness to engage with the country’s recent past. Set in 1980s Dresden and focusing on a privileged, educated elite, the novel captures the minutiae of daily life in the GDR. Tellkamp’s and Rugen’s novels differ vastly in terms of style: the prose of the former is full of ornate flourishes and he adopts, to quote one critic, a “highly self-conscious literary style”, while Ruge favours a far more muted approach. However, both novels interweave the experiences of different generations in their portrayal of a moribund political state on the eve of its collapse. The old order is in decline; these are, indeed, times of fading light.
Ruge’s novel spans a fifty-year period from the nascent years of the GDR to 2001. The authoritarian Wilhelm and his wife, Charlotte, return in the early 1950s from Mexican exile to assist in the development of the newly established anti-fascist state. Shortly afterwards, Charlotte’s son Kurt, together with his Russian wife Irina, returns to East Germany following a long period of imprisonment in a Soviet gulag and later rises to prominence as a historian. The unwavering allegiance to communism exhibited in the first generation is tempered somewhat by a more critical approach in the second and then rejected completely in the third – Kurt and Irina’s son Alexander (Sascha) defects to the West shortly before the fall of the Wall. For Alexander’s son Markus, communism is merely an outmoded and utterly meaningless ideology.
Moving forwards and backwards in time, the novel eschews a chronological approach. The opening chapter is set in 2001 and describes Alexander’s visit to his ageing father in the former East Germany. Mexico in 1952 is the setting for the second chapter, which is told from Charlotte’s perspective. The reader returns to the year 2001 in four more chapters, including the final one – Alexander, having being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, travels to Mexico in the footsteps of his maternal grandmother. One particularly significant event, the patriarch Wilhelm’s ninetieth birthday party, is the focus of six different chapters, all entitled “October 1st, 1989”. While the non-linear narrative may at first seem somewhat offputting, the reader quickly adapts to the fluctuation between the family’s past and the present of Alexander’s illness and Mexican refuge. In an interview Ruge highlights the importance of spatial awareness for the process of composition. The influence of his earlier career as a mathematician and as a theatre practitioner can be seen in the novel’s careful construction. However, the text remains surprisingly accessible despite its complex structure.
As a structural device, the alternating perspectives, representing all four generations, work well. “My authorial gaze is a gentle one,” Ruge explained in an interview. This means that he has “neither defended nor judged” his characters. Certainly, the alternating perspectives allow the reader access to the thoughts of a host of figures, each of whom has a very distinctive voice. Wilhelm, the loyal servant of the state, has been a member of the Communist Party for seventy years. From appropriately humble beginnings, his biography has followed a model communist trajectory. Any less than ideal aspects of his past have been conveniently omitted from the official version of his biography, which is recited once again during the eulogy given on his ninetieth birthday. The recipient of countless awards and medals of honour from the state, he remains utterly committed to the cause. He is very critical of the younger generation, his own family included, for what he terms their “defeatist” stance and is deeply suspicious of Gorbachev’s reforms. Wilhelm’s wife, for her part, has been a member of the Communist Party for an equally impressive sixty-two years. An ambitious, intelligent woman, she was reluctant to return from exile in Mexico. In the GDR she grew increasingly resentful of her husband’s success and what she viewed as the missed opportunities in her own life. Even as an old woman, she still desperately wants to do “all of those things that Wilhelm prevented her from doing – living, working and travelling. Going to Mexico one more time.”
Her son Kurt casts a critical eye on the preceding generation’s blind allegiance to the party and on the exculpatory function of acting in the name of the anti-fascist cause. The prolific historian is still repressing traumatic memories of his imprisonment in a Soviet labour camp so many years earlier. The reader feels a certain degree of empathy for Kurt, despite his wandering eye, many affairs and the general disarray in his private life as he struggles to connect with his son. His wife, Irina, is a passionate woman who is under no illusions about her husband’s less than gallant behaviour; her excessive drinking can be explained, in part, by this tension. Indeed some of the novel’s funniest scenes come courtesy of this fiery Russian. One chapter is told from the perspective of Irina’s mother, Nadjescha, who has left behind her impoverished origins to come and live with her daughter and son-in-law but reminisces about her homeland.
Irina worries about her son Alexander who, to the horror of his parents, has defected to the West just days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. If his father still believes in the possibility of “true, democratic socialism”, the son harbours no such hope. “I don’t want to spend my entire life having to lie,” Sascha had announced to a concerned Kurt as early as 1979 in the aftermath of a failed marriage and his decision to drop out of college. Following his diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, he travels to Mexico in 2001, seeking solace perhaps, but also to retrace his maternal grandmother’s footsteps of some fifty years previously. As a young boy he had been fascinated by Charlotte’s tale of emigrants arriving in Mexico after years on the run, perhaps identifying even at an early age with this sense of restlessness. In the final, very poignant chapter we learn that a “feeling of not belonging” has accompanied him throughout his life. His son Markus, for his part, seems unable to forgive his father for the breakdown of his relationship with his mother: “Whenever you needed him, he wasn’t there” is his damning indictment. Markus is an angry young man for whom communism is nothing more than an antiquated ideology. The elaborate interweaving of these very different perspectives, both male and female, is one of the novel’s great strengths as the reader comes to understand the motivations and the often turbulent inner worlds of Ruge’s characters.
The rise and fall of communism is also reflected in the changing discourse from one generation to the next. It comes as no surprise to the reader that “the Party is always right” is Wilhelm’s favourite refrain. In the early 1960s Charlotte zealously embraces her role as literary reviewer, criticising what she terms “negative” and “defeatist” books. One particular text is rejected because it does not help to “promote belief in the progress of humanity and the triumph of socialism; it does not, therefore, belong on the shelves of the bookshops of our Republic”.
As a historian with a prodigious publication record, her son Kurt is particularly aware of linguistic subtleties and of the power of language to further ideologies. The clash between the communists of the first and of the second generation is not only a matter of ideological differences; the collision also happens in the realm of discourse. As Kurt listens to the oration at Wilhelm’s ninetieth birthday party, he is struck by the proliferation of empty phrases, such as “anti-fascist resistance”. The veracity of this phrase is, in Kurt’s view, particularly questionable when applied to a man whose biography is littered with half-truths. It is all the more poignant, then, that a character so in tune with the nuances of language and whom his son describes as “the orator, the great story-teller”, loses the ability to speak. The novel opens with Alexander paying a visit to his ailing father, whose ability to communicate verbally has been reduced to a single word, “yes”.
The ailing body is a motif throughout the novel. Its allegorical function is fulfilled most obviously in the case of Wilhelm, who dies, the reader learns towards the end of the novel, on October 1st, 1989, on the day of his ninetieth birthday celebrations and mere weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag notes that “illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society was unjust or corrupt”. The decline of communism is reflected in the physical decline and ultimate demise of several other characters also. Descending into alcoholism, Irina dies in 1995. Six years later, her husband is a reduced, dependent figure, while her son is left reeling at the devastating news of his cancer diagnosis.
When Alexander visits his father before embarking upon his journey to Mexico, he is struck by the desolation of the area. Uncut grass, rotting fences and empty houses form a topography of neglect and decay. “Time appeared to stand still”, we read on the second page. Nowhere in the novel is this sense of stagnation more powerfully conveyed than at Wilhelm’s birthday party. For the twelve-year-old Markus, being in his great-grandparents’ house is akin to being in a natural history museum, a feeling which is further reinforced by the fact that the visitor is not allowed to touch anything. The teenager’s sense that “everything was somehow prehistoric and it smelt that way too: dusty and strict and terribly serious” underscores not only generational distance, but also the remoteness of this “assembly of dinosaurs” from the young man’s concerns. His great-grandfather reminds Markus of an extinct reptile, the pterodactyl. In a later chapter which returns to the birthday celebrations, this time from Kurt’s perspective, a sense of atrophy again pervades. Kurt grows increasingly irritated as he listens to the oration, mentally dismissing this glorified rendition of his father’s biography as an exercise in tedium, albeit a splendidly executed one. He feels disconnected from this “fossilised” company.
Ruge’s portrayal of a society in decline is also memorable for its gentle humour. Some of the novel’s funniest moments occur on Wilhelm’s birthday as it is relived through the perspective of various family members. Kurt’s wandering eye settles on his former daughter-in-law, Markus’s mother, Melitta, whose inviting figure provides suitable distraction from the boredom of the oration. Kurt’s wife, Irina, is also the source of much of the novel’s humour when, for example, the reader gains access to her bitingly funny mental observations about her son’s new girlfriend. Ruge’s penchant for introducing humour into even the most serious of exchanges is one of the novel’s strengths and enhances our ability to relate to the characters as they muddle through lives in various states of disarray.
In Times of Fading Light offers in the lives of a single family a fascinating panorama of twentieth century East German history. While there is allusion to politically significant events, such as the expatriation of the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976, Gorbachev’s policy of reform in the late 1980s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and, of course, the Wende (the 1989 transition), the focus remains firmly on the personal. In an interview Ruge explained this approach in the context of a German media already “saturated” with images of historically momentous events: “At the back of my mind was the cunning thought that the readers could fill in the blanks for themselves.”
Ruge’s wonderful depiction of character and his adroit use of alternating perspectives mean that the reader soon becomes engrossed in the lives of a dysfunctional, yet highly sympathetic, East German family. Chaotic familial relationships lie at the heart of the text. The dynamics of the father-son relationship are revealed to be particularly difficult from one generation to the next. Kurt challenges his father’s unwavering allegiance to the Party. Alexander rejects the patriarchal East German state completely by leaving for the West, while Markus seems unable to let go of the resentment he feels towards his father for his actions so many years earlier.
The old order is on the brink of collapse as the communist patriarch Wilhelm celebrates his ninetieth birthday on October 1st, 1989. Relationships between family members are strained. Yet in these times of fading light, the warmth of Ruge’s approach to his characters shines through as he allows the reader access to their innermost thoughts and feelings. The result is a deeply human story of precious memories, of disappointments and frustrations, and of lives in various stages of decline. Beautifully written and elegantly constructed, In Times of Fading Light is an assured and compelling debut novel.
Translation rights for In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts have been sold for Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, Greek and English.