This is my review of In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge.
The fact that the author, like his "anti-hero" Alexander, left Berlin just before the fall of the Wall, gives an authentic ring to this saga of four generations of a family living in East Germany under Communism and later unification. The chapters switch back and forth, adopting different viewpoints between 1952 and 2001. This allows us to see the characters' estimation of each other, and adds the intriguing spice of knowing how their lives will turn out, but not yet how or why.
Each chapter is like a short story – for me, the most perceptive and entertaining were the accounts of self-absorbed and semi-senile former Communist party activist Wilhelm's ninetieth birthday. He cold shoulders a couple whose son has defected to the West, unaware that his grandson has just done the same. In the eyes of his great-grandson Markus, whose desire to be an animal keeper is fated to remain unachieved, Wilhelm resembles a sharply observed pterodactyl, who on a generous impulse gives him his stuffed iguana.
Although I was fascinated by the theme and wanted to admire this book, it proved hard going. Perhaps owing to the translation, the style often seems leaden. Scenes are continually overloaded with mundane, wordy descriptions, which is doubly irritating since some of the major incidents are never fully explained. There is a tendency to recall events rather than enact them, although the shifting timeframe would readily permit this more dramatic approach. So, it is merely conveyed in the odd paragraph how Kurt ruined his own health and inadvertently brought about his brother Werner's death by sending him a mildly subversive letter which landed them both in a Soviet camp. Any sense of guilt that Kurt may feel, the traumatic effect on his mother Irina, are never explored in any depth.
I looked mostly in vain for the sense of menace combined with crass futility of life under the Stasi that one finds in, for example, the superb film, "The lives of others". The most sinister scene for me is when, returning to Berlin after a period of exile in Mexico, Charlotte becomes convinced that the plum job which has lured her back is a trick. The smoker in a dark leather coat who keeps directing probing glances her way is the first of several who will eventually lead her and Wilhelm into custody, signed confessions and ultimate disappearance. "Where were the people whose names are never mentioned anymore? Who not only didn't exist but had never existed?" Yet, when we next meet them, Charlotte and Wilhelm are comfortably employed in their promised posts, in a world of servants, string-pulling and relative luxury.
For me, a real sense of the grimness of East Germany rarely comes through, as in the powerful scene in which Kurt pursues his rebellious son Alexander through the rundown streets in the vain search for a restaurant that will serve a decent meal. "A subway train rattled by – but the subway trains here ran on an overhead line, while the suburban trains ran underground. The world turned upside down …….. passengers like cardboard cut-outs descending into hell."
A potentially brilliant novel which for me does not quite come off.