In Times of Fading Light is the debut novel of Eugen Ruge (b. 1954 in Sosva/Ural). It is loosely based on the fate of Ruge’s own family and tells the story of the four generations of the Umnitzer family. The book was very favorably reviewed after publication; it was awarded the Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Award) in 2011, and sold more than half a million copies on the German-language market. In the reviews it has been sometimes compared to the Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. Foreign rights have been sold to 28 countries so far.
The book has, as I understand it, two central themes: the slow disintegration of the Umnitzer family, whose story is told in the book, and the change of attitude by the four generations of the family toward the big experiment of communism, as applied in the GDR.
Wilhelm Powileit, the family patriarch whose 90th birthday celebration in October 1989 is one of the central events in the book, was a communist from early age on. A metal worker, party member from the time of the foundation of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1919, later involved in fighting the Kapp putsch, and during the first years of the Nazi era busy with illegal work for the party that included smuggling of people and propaganda material, but also the liquidation of ‘traitors’, felt always to be a man with a purpose and without doubt. The hardships of exile in Mexico, later a short stay in Russia and return in 1952 to East Germany even strengthened his belief in the Stalinist ideas. As a so-called Westemigrant he was viewed with suspicion by the people in charge in the Party in the GDR, and therefore he was not able to rise to a higher rank in the party hierarchy. But he develops a kind of grass root activism that earns him year after a year a new medal of honor and a visit of the party secretary with rather boring speeches. It suits the party to showcase a man like Wilhelm Powileit, with such an exemplary resume, even when some of the events mentioned in it are somehow blurred, and it is fairly obvious that the official CV is more a legend than the truth. But the most important is anyway always missing in official resumes – a truth that Wilhelm discovers surprisingly once his memory becomes very weak as a result of beginning dementia (or is it the medication that his wife is supervising?).
Contrary to Wilhelm, his wife Charlotte (divorced Umnitzer, hence the different family name of the following generations) made quite a career after returning to the GDR, in the newly founded Academy. Her marriage of convenience was based mainly on the shared belief in the communist ideal, and their long life together was always submerged to the fight for an allegedly brighter future for the working class. But for Charlotte, who had a very unhappy and abusive childhood and difficult first marriage with two children, the communist ideology was also a kind of escape, an idea that filled in a void in her life, something to stick to with all her might, because it provided the stability that was lacking in her life.
While the oldest generation seems to have no doubt about their political convictions and beliefs, the same cannot be said for Kurt Umnitzer, Charlotte’s son and Wilhelm’s step son. Kurt is an academic, one of the leading historians of the country, and a very productive one. While he is convinced that the ideals of socialism are worth fighting for, and also that the experiment of its practical implementation is a historical major achievement, he is not blind for certain unpleasant truths. As an adolescent, he and his brother Werner were growing up in the Soviet Union to be trained as a part of the future post-WWII elite in Communist Germany (Wolfgang Leonhard or Markus Wolf come to mind), but a letter in which they voiced doubt regarding the wisdom of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact changed their lives dramatically: as a consequence of the discovery of the content of this letter, they were exiled to different camps in Siberia; Werner didn’t survive this punishment in Vorkuta, but Kurt who was exiled to another place did, later to return with his Russian wife Irina and their son Alexander to the GDR; Irina’s mother Nadjeshda later joins, but she never feels at home in Germany and dreams to go home to her village in the Ural.
Alexander, Kurt’s and Irina’s son, is in some way the central figure of the novel. This is obvious from the fact that the book starts and ends with a chapter following his fate. The book’s first chapter describes how Alexander, just diagnosed with an obviously incurable form of cancer, takes care of his father who suffers from an advanced form of dementia. In an attempt to re-connect with the story of his family and in making sense of his life, he travels to Mexico, a place he knows from many conversations at home. But it’s not the real thing, a touristic experience with a bit of nostalgia. Alexander, who left the GDR shortly before its complete collapse, thinks about his failed career in West Germany, his inability to feel at home anywhere, his failed relationships with the women in his life, his complete failure as a father. The socialist ideal was never something that appealed to him, but he wasn’t able to find something else to occupy this empty spot in his life.
For Markus, the youngest Umnitzer, and representative of the fourth generation, the political ideas of his grandparents and great-grandparents are already history only. It’s something about which you read in the history book but with which you have no connection, despite the fact that once great-grandfather Wilhelm visited the school to tell the students about his early years in the KPD and his acquaintance with Karl Liebknecht, the party founder.
There are other interesting elements in the book; particularly the role of the women in the family as opposed to the men. They are not just some kind of ‘sidekick’, but occupy a prominent role in the novel, and have to struggle with their own tragedies. Also the structure of the novel is very interesting and elaborated: while several chapters, including the first and the last take place in 2001, the one central event in the book is Wilhelm’s 90th birthday, a day in which almost the whole family comes together and in which the open and hidden conflicts are revealed; no less than six chapters focus on this single day; in between them there are several flashbacks – starting from 1952, the year of return of Wilhelm and Charlotte – and also returns to the present time (2001); additionally, there are various flashbacks that recount certain events in the past, so that the novel covers over all a period from 1919 to 2001. This structure is rather elaborate and may sound confusing, but I had no problem to follow it; one of the advantages of this structure as compared to a linear and chronological account was for me that it was clear from the beginning that Alexander is the main hero of the book – although as a reader you can make also a different choice.
There are a number of comical situations, and also humour in the book. The language is unpretentious and doesn’t try to impress you. Maybe that was one of the reasons why this was such a successful book: it is easy to read. No long and winding Thomas Mann sentences, no polished prose as in Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower, the novel with which Ruge’s book has sometimes been compared.
The title of the book is a reference to the potato harvest in the village in the Ural in early fall in which Kurt lived, but it is also a metaphor for the fading light that the communist ideal shines on the Umnitzer family and that gets weaker with every generation.
Overall this is a well-crafted novel I really enjoyed. I read it in German; therefore I cannot say anything regarding the quality of the translation.
Eugen Ruge: In Times of Fading Light, translated by Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press 2014
This review is published in the framework of the 2017 edition of German Literature Month, organized again by Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. A list with links to all published reviews by the participating bloggers can be found here.
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