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In Times of Fading Light: A Novel by Eugen Ruge
Graywolf Press, June 11, 2013
Literary Fiction, 328 pages
Review copy provided from the publisher via Historical Novel Society for their Online Exclusive, this review expands on that linked review.
Burton Book Review Rating:
Enthrallingly expansive in its geographical and temporal sweep, this story of a German family tells of years spent in exile, of the revolution of 1989 and beyond. The masterful narrative makes halt in Mexico, Siberia and East Berlin, climbing the summits and charting the abysses of the 20th century along the way. The result is both a stunning panorama and a monumental German novel that makes history itself tangible through the history of one family. A novel of immense stature, founded on its humanity, its precision and its humour.
In Times of Fading Light focuses on three generations. The grandparents, still convinced Communists, return to the fledging East Germany at the beginning of the 1950s to do their part in establishing the new state. Their son returns from the other direction, having emigrated to Moscow and found himself banished to Siberia. He returns with his Russian wife to a country mired in petit bourgeois values, yet also brings with him an unwavering belief that they can be changed. The grandson, meanwhile, feels increasingly constricted in a heimat that was not of his choosing, and heads to the West on the very day that his grandfather, the family patriarch, turns 90. The glittering lights of a political utopia that once shone enticingly seem to be gradually fading as time wears unwaveringly on.
Eugen Ruge's newly translated literary novel lets the reader experience the atmosphere of the political upheaval of Germany's families while interspersing somewhat sarcastic reflections of their way of life. Following multiple characters during multiple time periods, the novel has a reminiscent quality to it as we explore the characters through different viewpoints. On display is a resilient family that slowly reveals their fractures through their personal despair and struggles of alcoholism, cancer, and marriage as we flip through the 1940's, 1990's and 2001.
Wilhelm and Charlotte the communists, their son Kurt the smart one with the weak writer's hands, Kurt and Irina's son Alexander the drifter, and Alexander's son Markus the screwed up kid, all come and go just as the fragments of the time lines come and go. Each family member seems disappointed in the next family member, and through all the jumping of timelines we know some of the story before we technically get to it, as with the major event of Wilhelm's ninetieth birthday party. Everyone is expected to attend this grand event, and before we get to this major event of the story there is a back and forth that is somewhat difficult to keep track of.
The novel starts off with Alexander tending his elderly father Kurt when we learn Alexander is struggling to accept his own diagnosis of inoperable cancer. Here he finds letters and notes from Kurt which resurface at the end of the novel, but not to the degree this reader would have liked. Kurt's father Wilhelm is overly proud of himself and his Communist views, but there is a bit more history of his immediate family that is missing yet alluded to.
The narration shifts from Kurt and Irina, to Wilhelm and Charlotte, and to Alexander and his son as we anticipate an epic ninetieth birthday party for Wilhelm. I would have liked to know what really happened during that Nazi era to Kurt and his brother besides prison but we must fill in the blanks ourselves. Wilhelm is utterly disappointed in his life and he wonders what was the point of it all as the Wall comes down, and yet Kurt wonders too (eighty million people dead!) so we witness the search for identity all set against different backdrops of Germany's society- deftly showing the parallels of the generations - and we realize dejectedly that it is all the same thing in the end. The novel reads as if we were flipping through clippings of the characters’ memories so that we can relate to them all, but the constant jumping to another person and time frame is jarring. The writing itself is clear and precise, honest and blunt, but I question the change of tense in the last chapter. Some situations were a bit crude, but fleshes out the novel as it grasps the demons of reality for this family.