Eugen Ruge won the German Book Prize two years ago with In Times of Fading Light (my review). The novel has since been translated into around twenty languages, including Anthea Bell's much-praised English version. It's a multi-layered treat, a four-generational portrait that captures one family's experiences of twentieth-century German history. And a very pleasurable read, for all that.
Ruge has been very busy since then, travelling around the world to promote the book, writing a stage version and doing those things suddenly successful writers do. And while he did them, he wrote another book, Cabo de Gata. It's billed as a novel but it doesn't read like one. It reads more like a writing exercise, which is perhaps what it is, or perhaps the narrator is pulling our leg. Certainly it has very little in common with Ruge's complex debut, except perhaps the passages of the earlier book in which the main character visits Mexico.
For this is a book about a man looking for something - he's not quite sure what, and neither am I - in a strange, remote place. The narrator, he tells us, is a very busy suddenly successful writer. And he's writing down a story from memory, refusing to look back at old notes or check facts online. His younger self, disgusted by what's becoming of Berlin after the Wall comes down and reeling from a separation and his mother's death, gives up everything he has and heads for Spain, randomly arriving in a village called Cabo de Gata on the country's southernmost tip.
There, he tries to write, and the older man gives us the details of how he fails and how he survives - just - in absolute loneliness. He describes the unfriendly locals and the hostile winter beach, the travellers he meets and the objects around which he builds a fragile and pointless routine. There are dogs and flamingos and then a cat, a cat loaded with a symbolism that the narrator is polite enough to allow us to figure out for ourselves, for the most part. And then there's a climax and then there's a slow release, and the narrator bows out with some grace.
It's a gentle book, much less rambunctious than its predecessor, and the writing is subtler. What I particularly appreciated about it was that it felt pared down. One might feel tempted to draw a lot of psychological conclusions about its narrator, and Ruge lays him(self?) wide open to that but doesn't quite give us everything on a plate. By that I mean he's sparing, leaving a lot of gaps that we can choose to fill with our own interpretations or merely enjoy as quiet, melancholy space - perhaps fitting to a book about a seaside village in winter.
Seeing as I've been thinking about writing about place, I have to add that Ruge gave me a great sense of the village. An outsider's portrait that makes no presumption to understand its subject. In fact, with his almost non-existent Spanish, the narrator finds many more riddles than explanations. I liked that a lot.