In Times of Fading Light is a complex and beautifully written novel infused with subtle humour, about four generations of a German communist family. Eugen Ruge has fictionalised his own family history, looking at how the generations relate to political ideology as time passes.
The novel is structured into twenty chapters, each focusing on a different character’s experiences and jumping to and fro in time. One particular day (1 October 1989) is told several times over from different perspectives. The book opens with Alexander (Sascha) visiting his now senile father, the former historian Kurt, at the family home in 2001. Having learned he has inoperable cancer, Alexander steals money his father has forgotten even exists and decides to go to Mexico, where his grandparents survived the war in exile. This present-day strand also accompanies us throughout the novel, with Alexander becoming the character with whom we most identify – and clearly the closest character to the writer himself.
The family consists of Alexander’s grandmother Charlotte, an ambitious self-made woman who leaves behind an unhappy petty bourgeois childhood and loveless marriage when she joins the communist party. She meets Wilhelm, a working-class man utterly loyal to the party with a slightly comical craving for espionage. While the two of them end up in Mexican exile, Charlotte’s two sons Werner and Kurt arrive in the Soviet Union as teenagers. They fall victim to Stalin’s purges, Werner killed and Kurt sent to a gulag. Eventually released, he spends several years banished to a remote Siberian town where he meets his future wife Irina. Alexander’s mother Irina is the liveliest character, sexy, always stylish, a born survivor and a fantastic cook. We also meet the Russian grandmother Baba Nadja, a simple woman who grew up in abject poverty and later moves to the relative luxury of the GDR to live with her daughter. Finally, Alexander’s son Markus grows up with his hippy mother, is estranged from his father and rejects any and all ideologies beyond hedonism.
The earlier history is told in narrative flashbacks and memories, the actual action starting in 1952, with Charlotte longing to get out of the oppressive circle of political exiles in Mexico to the new German Democratic Republic. At the same time, she has to suppress fears of Stalinist bloodletting that come to a head when she and Wilhelm do arrive in Germany. We then follow the family history from different members' perspectives – young Sascha easily dominated by his grandmother, who by 1961 is installed in a responsible position but still plagued by envy and annoyance at Wilhelm’s natural authority, although he only has a minor position in the local party hierarchy of their village outside Potsdam.
His father Kurt struggles to find a morally acceptable way to deal with a colleague’s political denunciation, while indulging in one of many brief flings and coming up against his rebellious son. He is a man of great mental discipline who rarely allows himself to think of his time in the gulag. In one beautifully orchestrated scene, Kurt emerges from his memories of the camp to the bathos of an anonymous couple making love in a Trabbi in the woods.
My favourite chapter is set on Christmas Eve of 1976. Irina lovingly prepares a goose with all the trimmings, having gone to great lengths to procure all the ingredients. We get a great deal of very sensuous descriptions of the cooking mingled with her memories of her awful childhood, her terrible relationship with Charlotte and her extensive renovations to the house. Over an excruciating Christmas dinner with all the associated tensions, we find out that not only is Sascha’s girlfriend Melitta a vegetarian – she’s also pregnant. And Irina’s not even fifty yet!
And then in 1991, Irina cooks another Christmas dinner. Beautifully echoing the partner chapter, this time everything goes wrong. The ingredients are much too easy to get hold of, Irina can’t stand Sascha’s new girlfriend and is scared the house will be taken away from them and they won’t have enough to live on, Kurt and Sascha argue about politics – and Irina gets drunk as a skunk on the single malt she thought was cognac for the dried fruit stuffing. On to 1995, when Irina’s grandson Markus receives an invitation to her funeral. His mother Melitta has married a pastor from the East German opposition, who is now a conservative politician. Markus has as little interest in the church as he has in his estranged family’s politics, and this is a bleak and angry chapter. In the end he attends the funeral and remembers Irina fondly, but his father doesn’t recognise him.
In a third strand that holds the novel together wonderfully, we see one particular day through all the main characters’ eyes (although the narration sticks to the third person throughout the novel). It is the day of Wilhelm’s ninetieth birthday party and he's due to receive yet another medal. Irina spends the morning annoyed, plagued by nervous calls from Charlotte and waiting for her beloved Sascha to arrive from Berlin. But Sascha calls instead – he's escaped to West Germany. Irina is devastated. Her mother Nadyeshda Ivanova sees events through a veil of confusion, as she has never learned German. She confuses West Germany with America, hearing a familiar word of Russian in the buzz of conversation – Gorbachev. She rounds off the party by singing a folk song and deciding to go back to Siberia.
Wilhelm, now a respected figure in the village, is on the verge of dementia. Still capable of lucid thoughts, he has trouble expressing them. Naturally enough, the inveterate hardliner is horrified by the political developments of 1989. He too sings at the celebration – a hymn to the party, in the later abandoned Stalinist version, of course. Twelve-year-old Markus doesn’t understand much that goes on either, focusing more on waiting for his absent father and admiring Charlotte and Wilhelm’s collection of Mexican artefacts.
Kurt’s version of events is the most cynical and revealing. He provides explanations of all the characters we haven’t quite grasped in the previous narrations, capturing the petty tedium of life in the closing days of the GDR. He feels schadenfreude about Sascha’s escape from the country but his mother doesn’t listen when he tries to tell her. Despite a strict ban imposed by Charlotte (a woman fond of prohibitions), the drunken guests start talking politics. Kurt clears us up on Wilhelm’s official and unofficial biographies, hating the hypocrisy that has wiped the slate clean of communist cooperation with the Nazis in the early 1930s. He considers the party hymn fundamentally wrong and knows the song his mother-in-law sings – what the forcedly jolly guests take for a drinking song is a cautionary tale about goats getting gobbled up by wolves. While a minor official holds a formulaic speech, Kurt gets caught up in sexual fantasies about Melitta – another masterful and very funny piece of writing. He tells her the news of Sascha’s flight to the West, whereupon the buffet table collapses and an upset Melitta leaves. Kurt rounds off the evening with a spot of infidelity, finally deciding to write his memoirs about his entire time in the Soviet Union.
The final chapter on the day of the party is written from Charlotte’s perspective and set in the evening. Still a very angry woman, she now thoroughly despises Wilhelm. He gets all the recognition and she gets all the work, he breaks things all around the house but the doctor refuses to put him into a home. She is permanently embarrassed by his boorish behaviour, which everyone else seems to lap up. What is to be done?
The book closes with Alexander in Mexico. Having tried throughout this strand to re-connect with his grandmother by visiting her former home in Mexico City and other sites she told him about, he has been robbed and cheated and is thoroughly disgusted with the place. The hotels are bad, the water dirty, and he feels like a rich gringo who deserves nothing better. Beset by fear over his cancer, he finally takes a bus to a random town on the Pacific, which is where we find him at the end of the book. What he doesn’t know is that this is where Charlotte and Wilhelm spent a brief holiday described at the beginning of the novel. This is where they bought the conch shell that stood in their hall for years and where they were horrified by locals slaughtering turtles on the beach. In this more relaxed atmosphere, Alexander finds enough peace to read the personal notes he stole from his father along with his chess set carved in the gulag. The turtle soup factory is now a museum, which gives him some hope in humanity. Yet he is surrounded by poverty and inequality, and he reads a week-old newspaper over and over – 9/11, falling share prices, people whose bodies have adapted to living on Latin America’s rubbish tips.
Despite the very rich plot, the novel really is incredibly accessible. Ruge weaves in countless details of life in the GDR without ever expecting too much of his readers. What comes across wonderfully is the sense of making do, trading objects several times over to get hold of what’s really needed. And the oppressive in-fighting, the way the party and its rigid structures control all areas of life. Both Kurt and to some extent Charlotte feel fear of the state, but for both of them capitalism is worse. While for Alexander, all the GDR has to offer is hypocrisy and constraints. Yet Ruge hardly offers easy solutions with his bleak open ending.
The humour is very subtle at times but it does lighten the subject matter, which might otherwise be terribly depressing. And the writing is absolutely gorgeous. Each character has a very distinct voice, which adds to the amusement as they experience the same events differently. There are many beautiful descriptions of the two houses where the family members live, which are slightly reminiscent of Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Visitation, although the novels have little else in common than their Brandenburg setting.
Ruge tackles a lot of very rewarding themes, especially family relationships – there’s a nice big Oedipus complex in there, for example. He also looks at political loyalty and personal infidelity, aging, changing gender relations, the need for conviction or faith. This really is a novel that lives up to its ambitions. It's longlisted for the German Book Prize and English language rights have been sold - so you can look forward to it even if you don't speak German. There's been a lot of industry hype over this book, with Ruge winning the Alfred Döblin Prize for his manuscript two years ago, and I have to say this is one time it's justified.