by Jill Kronstadt
The Berlin Wall scarcely appears in Eugen Ruge’s autobiographical debut novel, In Times of Fading Light, but its metaphorical shadow looms over the East German family at its heart. Spanning the period between 1952 and 2001 and told through the perspectives of seven family members over four generations, this novel makes history and politics central while telling a story whose scenes take place mostly in cramped rooms simmering with interpersonal resentments.
Of the historical backdrop of the novel, Ruge says in a Deutsch Welle English interview in October 2011, “My goal wasn’t to paint an objective picture of history, and at the back of my mind was probably the cunning thought that the readers could fill in the blanks themselves.” The novel begins in 2001, with the principal character, Alexander Umnitzer, having just learned at age 46 that he is terminally ill with inoperable lymphoma. He visits his father Kurt, who is nearly unable to communicate due to dementia, but who was once a prominent historian of government-sanctioned “half-truths” and a “human machine” whom Alexander regarded as incapable of love. During his visit, Alexander recalls his refusal to visit his dying alcoholic mother Irina and bitterly peruses the collected souvenirs of his parents’ and grandparents’ days as decorated party loyalists. He finds a file of love letters and a box of slides containing Kurt’s erotic photographs of Irina, which he decides must be burned so they cannot be found. Before he leaves, Alexander empties the wall safe of the equivalent of around 19,000 dollars in German marks (even though by then Germany had adopted the Euro), drives to the airport, and takes off for Mexico, where his grandparents lived briefly before returning to the GDR to create a socialist utopia.
From there, chapters move back and forth in time, shifting points of view among different members of Ruge’s cast of characters. Historical events occur on the periphery of this insistently domestic saga, edging into the story from a television screen or a political argument. These time markers equip readers to supply the outline of the historical events that shape the family: the rise of Stalinism, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the construction and reopening of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even Alexander’s flight to Mexico is tethered to history by the casual mention of passengers reading newspapers with front-page photographs of an airplane flying into a skyscraper.
The trajectory of the fictional Umnitzers closely mirrors Ruge’s own family history, and Ruge freely admits that he waited to publish the book until he was 57, after all the characters’ real-life counterparts had died. Like Alexander, Ruge was born in the Urals and grew up in a family of staunch Communist Party loyalists. His father, the well-known GDR historian Wolfgang Ruge and the prototype for the novel’s Kurt Umnitzer, fled to Russia to escape the Nazis, only to be imprisoned in a gulag after the start of World War II. Eugen’s grandfather, reimagined as Wilhelm Ulrike, was a prominent Party functionary to whom cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn presented a plate commemorating Jähn’s 1978 space flight. (When Ruge recounts this event in a Talking Germany interview with Peter Craven, he adds that his grandfather, already suffering from dementia, mistook the gift for a donation request and promptly placed a hundred-mark note on the plate.)
Ruge reimagined himself as a novelist after a series of other careers. Initially, he studied mathematics, resulting in his first marriage, at 18 years old, to his 23-year-old math teacher. Deidre Byrnes, writing in the Dublin Review of Books, observes, “Interestingly, [Ruge’s father] 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.’” Eugen Ruge then worked on earthquake prediction at the Institute for Physics in Potsdam before quitting to become a writer for documentary films.
In 1988, Ruge defected to West Germany. In an interview with Milena G. Klipingat for the Goethe Institut, he says, “The GDR bored me; I couldn’t write anything about it. That sounds a bit flippant. But for someone who wants to write, it’s an existential problem: when there’s really nothing more to say about the country where you live. This was a mistake. But I first realized it only once the GDR was gone.” When the Wall was opened shortly after his defection, Ruge tells Peter Craven, his first response was irritation that his risky, life-changing decision had taken such an anticlimactic turn:
Absurdly I was annoyed in a way, because I’d gone to all that trouble. I’d applied for a permit to visit the West and made up an imaginary uncle. Well, the person wasn’t imaginary, but he wasn’t my uncle, and I was afraid the secret police would find that out and so on. But, then I packed my suitcase and left. I left a life behind the way you do if you get divorced, only worse, because the door’s shut for good. It was a painful process. But then suddenly there was this big bang and the wall was gone. I was absurdly angry that it was so easy for the other 17 million East Germans. But of course that subsided.
Once he arrived in the West, Ruge embraced the writing life, translating Chekhov into German, writing comic theatre and radio plays, and working as a theatre director and playwright.
Currently he is married, with four children from various relationships. Ruge is also an avid marathoner, achieving his best time of three hours and three minutes at 52 years of age. In Times of Fading Light has also been a marathon, of sorts: according to Byrnes, the work that ultimately became the novel went through 20 years of false starts before winning Germany’s 2009 Alfred Doblin Prize as a work in progress, followed by the 2011 German Book Prize as the completed novel. His latest work, Cabo de Gata, was published in German this past June; meanwhile, In Times of Fading Light has been translated into 20 languages.
Besides Alexander, his father Kurt, and his grandfather Wilhelm, the fractious Umnitzer family includes Alexander’s mother Irina, a Russian who served as a paramedic in wartime, but after marrying Kurt deploys her considerable energy toward remodelling their home, tracking Kurt’s numerous affairs, and drinking prolifically; Kurt’s mother Charlotte, a party loyalist who chooses to stay with Wilhelm despite a never-consummated entanglement with a university professor she meets in Mexico (who claims prophetically that “Communism, Charlotte, is like the religion of the ancient Aztecs. It devours blood”) and whose exaggerated view of her own abilities makes her seethe with bitterness every time Wilhelm’s contributions are rewarded; Irina’s mother, Nadyeshda Ivanovna, who follows her daughter to Germany and, years later, still speaks only Russian and thinks nostalgically of her hometown Slava, even though it’s the sort of place where neighbors will let a man freeze to death after he has been stripped naked by robbers in minus-46 degree weather; and finally, Alexander’s disaffected teenage son Markus, who gives clearest voice to the family’s disintegration.
The novel is divided into 20 sections, six of which are anchored by the date 1 October 1989, Wilhelm’s 90th birthday party. In the first iteration of this date, Kurt, Irina, and Nadyeshda discuss the news that the government has threatened a Tiananmen-style response to pro-democracy demonstrations and wait uneasily for Alexander to turn up. Instead, they receive Alexander’s phone call, letting them know he has defected and managed to escape to West Berlin, which means not only that his family may never see him again, but that he has betrayed his family’s political identity on the eve of its annual homage to Wilhelm, its most devout Communist.
Ruge returns to this same celebration, each time launching versions of the same scene from different characters’ points of view with the precision of a fugue returning to the same theme. Kurt turns up without Irina, who is too drunk to attend, and rather than face his parents’ wrath over Alexander’s defection, he says both his son and his wife are “sick.” Wilhelm, who in his mental decline has earlier confused vases with gravestones, inexplicably shouts, “Take those vegetables to the graveyard!” every time a guest arrives with flowers. A colonel in the secret police toasts Gorbachev and “perestroika in the GDR,” suggesting that change has overtaken even the GDR’s most repressive elements; Wilhelm, for his part, rages “Chev! Chev!” to signify his contempt for Krushchev and Gorbachev, who have introduced the reforms he loathes. At times the clashing elements of the celebration border on farce, as when Markus gives Wilhelm a drawing of a turtle as a gift, and Wilhelm pronounces it an iguana; when Kurt sees his son Alexander’s ex-wife and immediately gets an erection he must conceal through the interminable homage to Wilhelm; and when Nadyeshda Ivanovna bursts into a Russian drinking song as a prelude to returning to Slava instead of Kurt and Irina’s house.
Yet this same birthday party motif also evokes melancholy. Markus, at 13, watches with suspicion as his mother Melitta (now divorced from Alexander and in a relationship with a man she will marry later in the novel) dresses up for the party. By 1989, his grandparents’ Stalinist views are considered so extreme that Melitta feels she needs to conceal their destination from her boyfriend, who is in favour of democratic reform. Markus thinks of Wilhelm and Charlotte, his great grandparents, as museum relics (“It was a bit like going to the Natural History Museum in Berlin, where you couldn’t touch anything, either”) and refers to his father as “That asshole” for leaving him and his mother, but immediately looks for him when he arrives at his grandparents’ house: “Enough to make you puke, having a father who was never there. Other fathers stayed around, only he, Markus Umnitzer, had a shitty father like that who was never around.” Says Ruge in a Booktrust interview, “Markus is the most tragic character in the book. He sees the older generations’ struggles and ideals as mere history: irrelevant. But he has no ideals of his own.”
Through these generations, we can see that the family’s political ethos—a descent from Wilhelm and Charlotte’s dutiful idealism to Kurt’s compliant skepticism to Alexander’s renunciation and finally to Markus’s emptiness—coexists with a darker reality: the ideals that have sustained the Umnitzers have also led to violent political repression, including the prison camp death of Kurt’s brother Werner. And, of course, there’s the real reason for Alexander’s absence from the birthday party: his defection not just from East Germany, but from the very double life that living there entails.
In Times of Fading Light follows in the footsteps of other German novels that have examined issues of complicity with political oppressors. As a former border guard, tasked with shooting people who tried to breach the Berlin Wall, Ruge joins two other prominent literary figures who themselves actively participated in repressive governments: Günter Grass, a former member of the German SS during the Nazi regime; and Christa Wolf, who was an informant for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. In Ruge’s novel, in fact, guests at a 1976 Christmas dinner party discuss a Christa Wolf novel (probably Patterns of Childhood or possibly The Quest for Christa T., both of which deal with the aftermath of ideological conformity). “Wonderful book, Irina put in, although she hadn’t finished reading it yet, but she had heard it discussed so much that she was beginning to forget how trying she found the elaborate style. Why, Irina had asked herself as she read the book, why did the woman write like that? What was the matter with her, when she had everything, even a husband—so she’d heard it said—who did the housework for her?”
Ruge’s novel thus tells the story of German division and reunification from the vantage point of the living room sofa. Pressed in his interview with Peter Craven to answer the question, “How cruel was East Germany?” Ruge uncomfortably acknowledges the repression and prisons, but goes on to say, “Not everything was bad. There was a daily life there. There was a quite normal daily life there. Even in a dictatorship, people love each other, people marry, people get (sic) children.” Ruge embraces and expresses the idea that sweeping political movements involve human beings who sneer at others’ frumpy clothing, savor the unexpected delights of a romantic interlude in a long marriage, and, in the case of a four-year-old Alexander, put fingers up their bottoms and make “an amazing discovery again—even your own shit smells bad.”
Unlike in Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T., for example, in which the narrator ruminates obsessively over her personal responsibility in a political movement that annihilates all traces of nonconformity, Ruge positions German politics as a churning river in which the Umnitzer family members arbitrarily float, helpless to change the direction of the government and less concerned with their roles in history than with subverting their spouses, grieving the breakup of a marriage, scheming to procure illicit quantities of milk, and critiquing one another’s fashion sense. One of Ruge’s most remarkable achievements is the way he renders history simultaneously omnipresent and peripheral.
The last 2001 section of the novel finds Alexander in Mexico, coincidentally near the same spot his grandparents visited half a century before. The scene recalls an earlier one, from 1979, in which Kurt pursues Alexander, distraught by his separation from Melitta and squatting in a decrepit apartment in an abandoned building, through “the strange, ruinous arcades” of a neighborhood in East Berlin so desolate that the restaurants have closed for lack of fuel. Kurt, convinced that Alexander has lost his mind, urges him to try to repair his marriage and finish his history dissertation, which Alexander decries as “a lie,” presumably because he must base his work on distortions compelled by the government.
After the enclosed spaces in most of the novel, the expansiveness of the final 2001 Mexico sequence seems almost disorienting. Here, Ruge has Alexander looking over corrugated iron rooftops toward the sea, with few other voices than the whisper of palm fronds and the creaking of the hemp ropes of his hammock; and as he reads and rereads an article about poverty in Latin America, he finds the chain of cause and effect so bewildering that “what he will have understood will sound so outrageous that he will doubt whether he really does understand it—is that a special race of stunted human beings has developed on the garbage dumps . . . people who are apparently better suited to surviving the conditions of a garbage dump.” Ruge switches deftly into present tense for the final, idyllic pages of the novel, as Alexander runs easily and playfully along the beach, imagines writing a letter to his lover in Germany that explains why he has gone off to Mexico to die without telling her where he is, and intermittently fantasizes that his cancer diagnosis is a mistake. The tense switch creates an illusion of predictability and certainty that contrasts with the unrest that churns through the previous parts of the novel. After escaping his parents, his marriage, his son, and his country, we get the sense that in Mexico Alexander has executed a genuine escape at last.
As the Cold War and its great icons recede into memory and we approach the 25th anniversary of the reopening of Berlin, Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light offers the possibility of a new sort of German political novel, one that subverts the Western expectation of barrenness east of the Berlin Wall. Instead, we find the flawed, ordinary humanity that Ruge reveals through his intricate and beautiful debut.
Jill Kronstadt is an associate professor at Montgomery College in Germantown, MD and an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, New South, Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Every Day Fiction, and others. She has a blog at www.virtualpaperballs.wordpress.com.
Jill Kronstadt’s previous features: Ego and Eros: Kate Chopin, Redefining the Female Protagonist, The Wolf Will See You Now: L. Annette Binder’s Rise, Q&A with L. Annette Binder