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An inter-generational family saga mirroring the rise and fall of the GDR, Eugen Ruge's autobiographical debut novel tells of an imagined East German utopia and the ultimate failure of communism.
In Times of Fading Light is a debut novel, but its author was not a beginner. A mathematician by nature, Eugen Ruge had been writing radio plays, screenplays and plays since 1986, and translating from Russian, when he won the German Book Prize in 2011 with his heavily autobiographical first novel.
He was already 57 years old, making a late yet highly impactful start to his literary career.
Three generations of sorrow
Set in 1988 as the Berlin Wall is about to fall, Eugen Ruge's multi-generational saga includes grandparents who are are proud communists, a Russian mother who was a victim of Stalinism, and a son whose frustration with the GDR causes him to set off to the West.
Wilhem Powileit is the epitome of a family patriarch — stubborn, domineering and uncompromising. A died-in-the-wool communist who survived the Nazi era in Mexican exile, the fact that Stalin's brand of communism demanded iron-fisted rule and interned people in gulags is not his, or his wife's, concern. Not even when their own sons falls prey to the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union.
This son, Kurt, survives his imprisonment and moves to the GDR with his Russian wife Irina, but is silent about his experiences in the Gulag. Instead, he goes into internal exile and tries to stay out of party affairs as much as possible. His son Alexander grows up with these contradictions, while Alexander's mother, a gifted organizer who holds the family together, nonetheless drowns her frustration in alcohol.
These interrelationships were well played out in the 2017 film adaptation of the novel, with Bruno Ganz shining as the grim family patriarch.
Decorations and homage
Eugen Ruge unfolds his family saga on several narrative levels. The exile years from 1952 in Mexico form the one narrative thread. Another switches to the year 1989, shortly before the fall of the Wall, during Wilhelm's 90th birthday. Having become a historian of note in the GDR following his exile, he now has to endure receiving "a tin medal," bouquets of flowers and long homage speeches during the celebrations for his milestone birthday.
"I have enough brass in my box...Take those vegetables to the graveyard," said the curmudgeon when gifted with the medal and flowers.
The third narrative jumps to 2001 when Wilhelm's grandson Alexander searches for clues in Mexico in order to examine the story of his grandparents.
As Ruge shifts between different time periods, he also changes the narrative perspective. Each key character becomes the center of the story in one designated chapter — and thus have the chance to tell their own version of the story. These individual tales blend together to form a rich narrative mosaic.
Waiting out of respect
Eugen Ruge has succeeded in creating a touching, masterful GDR-era novel that rightly won the auththor the German Book Prize in 2011. And in the central figure, Alexander, you can clearly see his alter ego.
The fact that he presented this autobiographically-primed story so late was due to respect for his family. He felt he could only write about these characters after the death of his parents and grandparents, he has said.
Eugen Ruge: In Times of Fading Light, Faber & Faber (German title: In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts, 2011). English translation: Anthea Bell.
Eugen Ruge is the son of the GDR historian Wolfgang Ruge, who had voluntarily gone to the Soviet Union in 1933 as a young communist and after the German invasion of the Soviet Union spent 15 years in a Gulag-like labor camp before he was rehabilitated in 1956 and was allowed to travel to the GDR. Wolfgang Ruge heavily criticized Stalinism from an early age but remained a Communist and hoped for democratic socialism in the GDR. Eugen Ruge's mother is Russian and was two when he came to East Berlin with his parents. In 1988 he moved to West Germany. Meanwhile, the writer, translator and screenwriter lives again in Berlin and also on the isle of Rugen.