Translated by Anthea Bell
In Times of Fading Light is a multi-generational saga depicting the life of a family on the wrong side of history; a family on the East German side of the Iron Curtain and later the Berlin Wall. The grandfather, Wilhelm, is a communist, the father, Kurt, a historian, more communist than not, the son, Alexander/Sasha is a rebellious artist and the grandson, Markus – actually I’m not sure about that. I want to say waste of space but that’s just me showing my increasing late middle age intolerance.
The subtitle The Story of A Family reminded me instantly of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, subtitled Decline of a Family. In many ways that could be the subtext of Ruge’s novel also. There seems to be something lacking in the younger generations – a purpose, a core. Is this a hint that freedom – the Berlin Wall falls 5 weeks after the opening episode in the novel – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? With the death of the patriarch, the family, which has gradually been splintering, loses all influence and falls apart altogether. It’s a path that mirrors the fate of the East German state itself!
This implicit criticism of Western freedom does not mean that Ruge is wearing rose-tinted glasses with regards to the GDR.. The drab facts of life in the East, the hypocrisy and tyranny of the party is detailed in all its fading glory. Not that is was a totally valueless life. In the Faber podcast Ruge makes the point that, after his own escape from the GDR, it took him many years to understand that, to achieve some kind of balanced viewpoint. The Western viewpoint is distorted, based as it is on the sudden release of the Stasi archive. That’s only one perspective and it’s not enough. What would happen if the USA were to be judged only on its secret service files?, Ruge asks rhetorically. Of course, post-Snowden we can now answer that ….
Food for thought? Certainly and the novel’s structure adds to that. There are multiple timelines which are told in parallel and that is slightly confusing to begin with, particularly as not all connections are explicit. Readers needs to build these in much the same way as they need to bring their historical knowledge to the table. This is a novel about the fall of the wall even though the wall has already fallen. Ruge’s aim is to compress and he succeeds. At 308 pages the English edition is 250 pages shorter than my Buddenbrooks edition. However, the novel is worth the demands made of the reader. It pays back. Particularly during Wilhelm’s birthday celebrations; set pieces which serves as points of familiarisation for the reader and ever-increasing catastrophe for the Umnitzer family. They also reflect the novel’s origins. In Times of Fading Light began life as a play and one with more than a passing nod to Chekhov’s Three Sisters, both in structural terms and casting. Let me just say there are some very interesting female characters, who in a different world and society could quite easily have taken the lead roles.
At the time of the 2013 Edinburgh Book Festival Ruge was working on a second version of the play, one which is to encompass the action in its entirety. Now that will be an exercise in compression! He said that it was approaching 3 hours in length. I think it will be a riveting three hours and I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to see it.
In Times of Fading Light – Eugen Ruge ISBN 978-0571288571
Event and subsequent conversation with the author at Edinburgh Book Festival 21.08.2013 (Yes, I got to talk to a German Book Prize Winner in person! Sometimes I just love this blog!)