In his late 50s, Eugen Ruge has come upon the international literary scene with an important, highly accomplished debut novel, “In Times of Fading Light,’’ about the Umnitzer family in what we knew as East Germany (formally the German Democratic Republic) from 1952 until 2001. Born in 1954 in the Urals, in Russia, Ruge lived his youth in the GDR, leaving in 1988. In the West he made his living as a translator and writer, and his first prose work, which grew into this novel, won the Alfred Doblin Prize in 2009. The book, published in Germany in 2011, won the German Book Prize that year.
The novel is aptly named, for the reading feels as if we are working our way through a photograph album — vignettes about various members of this family — as the light in their lives grows dimmer. And, as often happens as families evolve, the keenly observed details become sadder, sometimes grimmer, yet also funnier, strangely familiar, and definitely more bizarre.
That flood of emotion we often feel while looking at a photo, asking ourselves what was the occasion? Where? When? What was I doing, or feeling then? — Ruge somehow captures all this, with great skill and sympathy. The members of this extended family are combinations of good and bad, but in the end so vivid and complex that we find ourselves taking sides, and then, in a flash, reversing completely.
How can we get angry at the womanizer who has carried his Latin primer with him through 10 years of a labor camp? Or condemn the loyal communist married to that womanizer, who is slowly drinking herself to death after her only child has defected to the West? Or judge the son who is diagnosed with cancer and thinks a trip to his grandparents’ Mexico will somehow save him? Or laugh at the Russian grandmother whose memories of her youth are all the more chilling because she is not quite “all there” and cannot whitewash her devastating past?
To write the history of a country through the prism of a family is an enormous task, but Ruge has cut it up and somehow put the pieces together in a way that at first may seem confusing but later makes perfect sense. What makes us keep reading is the tension Ruge has created between the antics of this extended family against the airless, fear-ridden atmosphere that characterized the German Democratic Republic. After reading and rereading we realize how carefully Ruge has placed each part of the puzzle; this splendid, beautifully translated novel becomes richer as it acquires a logic of its own.
Of the 20 sections of the book, six take place on Oct. 1, 1989, the day of Wilhelm Powileit’s 90th birthday and only weeks before the country’s dramatic demise. Wilhelm is Charlotte Umnitzer’s second husband and high up in the Communist Party and as we return again and again to this august occasion, we get not only the usual family tensions but also a sense of the neurotic ambivalence of life there, mostly through two main characters, Charlotte and her son Kurt. (Her other son, Werner, declared missing, was actually killed in a gulag, although no one ever talks about it.) Although Charlotte has never truly loved Wilhelm, she does not — until the end of the novel — realize what her loyalty to Wilhelm has cost her. How different her life might have been if she had stayed with Adrian, whom she met and loved in Mexico, and who once told her: “Communism, Charlotte, is like the religion of the ancient Aztecs. It devours blood.” It also seemed to devour creativity. Thus, we must be even more grateful for Ruge’s vision and talent — that out of that gloomy bleak place and time, he has given us such a unique and evocative novel.