Humanity Behind the Wall
Review: In Times of Fading Light
Joseph F. Berenato
In Times of Fading Light
Eugen Ruge, Translated by Anthea Bell
Fiction – Novel
Graywolf Press, pp. 308
My generation comprised the last of the Cold War Kids, and the Communist Bloc was still a very real thing during my childhood. It didn’t matter if we were talking about soldiers or scholars, presidents or peasants; any person beyond the Berlin Wall was the enemy. It was inconceivable to us that anyone who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain could be painted as anything but “Godless Communists”. Yet that is exactly what Eugen Ruge did in his out-of-the-gate hit In Times Of Fading Light, which spans almost sixty years of family and national history.
The story is not told linearly; instead, the narrative jumps back and forth in a series of vignettes starting and ending in 2001 just days after September 11, and going as far back as 1952 (the year that the German Democratic Republic – East Germany – closed its border to West Germany). By telling these tales through a multitude of characters’ points of view – one story in particular is told from six unique perspectives on October 1, 1989, slightly more than a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall – Ruge gives us an intimate look at characters who are every bit as hopeful, talented, jaded and flawed as their Western rivals.
It is by no means an accident that in the process Ruge parallels the decay (both physical and moral) in the Umnitzer family with the decline of the GDR. Each generation of the family is representative of the different eras of Communist rule: family patriarch Wilhelm Umnitzer and his wife Charlotte, the loyalists; their son Kurt and his Russian wife Irina, born under Communist rule but cautiously optimistic about Gorbachev and glasnost; their son Alexander, born into the Me Generation; and Alexander’s son Markus, who views Wilhelm and his cronies as “a party of dinosaurs,” a commentary both about them directly and their politics indirectly.
Though the novel derives its title from a line in one of the narratives, in a broader context the title refers to the ravages of age. Consider, for example, Wilhelm. A devout Party member since the 1920s, Wilhelm enjoyed a moderately successful life within the party. He went from exile in Mexico – a common occurrence for Communists during the Hitler years – to the administrative director at the Academy of Political Science. Jump forward to his ninetieth birthday party in 1989; his mind was all but gone. At one point he broke out in a song originally written to deride the Party, and later capped off the affair by clumsily destroying the buffet table. Despite his unceremonious final years, Wilhelm is the epitome of what my generation pictures when thinking about Communists. Yet here we see a man who, while claiming to have had ties to the GDR Secret Police, never actually fired a weapon in service, and spent the majority of his life as a glorified paper-pusher; just another spoke in the wheel of bureaucracy. Far from being the frightening face of the enemy, Wilhelm was, in actuality, no more threatening and every bit as endearing as the old man in your neighborhood who always waxes nostalgic about his time in World War II.
At the center is Alexander (not-so-coincidentally the same age as the author), recently diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and about to set off for Mexico in an attempt to connect with the locales once inhabited by his paternal grandparents. A not-altogether-sympathetic character, Alexander is a member of the GDR’s version of the peacenik generation; the difference being that conscientious objectors went to jail in the West, but usually disappeared in the East. As such he served his mandatory eighteen months in the National People’s Army, after which he married and had a child, both of whom he abandoned after three years. He spent the next several years as a maudlin drunk until, in 1989 he defected to West Germany, leaving everyone behind; an act made moot several months later by the fall of the Wall. In perhaps his final act of selfishness, he stole a large sum of money from his widowed, senile father to fund his trip to Mexico. Of all of the characters in In Times of Fading Light, Alexander is closest to Western stereotypes of Eastern citizenry – cold, callous, and reliant on vodka to get through the day. Despite that, Ruge has painted Alexander as a deeply complex character, as conflicted and neurotic as any good American.
Alexander’s father (and Wilhelm’s son), Kurt, is the most well-developed, fleshed-out and sympathetic character in the novel. Kurt was at times a hopeful dreamer, at times an unabashed womanizer, and at times a dutiful family man, keeping his head down and doing what he was told by whatever authority confronted him, be it familial or governmental. He spent the majority of his life as a historian, writing whatever “official” histories the Party deemed fit. Kurt never dared cross or question the Party again until his last book, which detailed his time in the gulag (for an offhand anti-Stalin comment in a letter to his brother), but even that was after German reunification had begun. Near the end of his life (the point at which we are introduced to him), Kurt is alone and enfeebled. He cannot dress himself, he cannot clean himself, he eats by instinct alone without the use of cutlery, and his vocabulary is limited to two words: “Yes,” which is his answer to almost any question; and “Irina,” the name of his dead wife. In Kurt, Cold War kids can find the most familiarity – we can understand his hopes and dreams, because we felt them when words like glasnost and perestroika entered the global lexicon. And we cower in fear and revulsion at what becomes of him and his once sharp mind, because we are deathly afraid that will happen to us, too. More than any other character, Kurt is the closest to who we would be under Communist Rule.
At times humorous, at times bleak, In Times of Fading Light offers us vantage points that are rare in Western countries: those from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Eugen Ruge has humanized our Cold War counterparts, showing us what family life was like in the now-defunct East Germany from an insider’s perspective, warts and all.