Eugen Ruge: Beyond the Berlin Wall
In Times of Fading Light is a tender, poignant and often amusing story that dips in and out of the lives of four generations of a family living in communist East Germany between 1952 and 2001. It won the German Book Prize in 2011 and went on to become an international bestseller. Published in the UK by Faber on 4 July this year, it’s already picked up generous reviews in the national press. It’s an incredibly satisfying novel and I had lots of questions to put to the author, Eugen Ruge. To begin, I asked him about the title, and the theme throughout of light fading – sunsets, for example, and wintry light.
‘First,’ he told me, ‘there’s the literal meaning. Nadyeshda Ivanovna, the old Russian grandmother in the book, uses the term to refer to that time of the year after the potato harvest, when the stalks have been burned and there’s a certain quality in the air and a certain emotion as the days shorten. Of course, there are the non-literal interpretations which are open to everyone – the fall of a family, perhaps, but more than this, the demise of a country, an idea, a political system, a dream of utopia.’
Much of the story is set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It follows one family through different generations, from Charlotte and Wilhelm’s passionate faith in their communist ideal as they help to build the socialist state, to Kurt, their son, who is more critical and sees the problems, and who spent a decade in a Russian gulag for criticising the Soviet regime. Next comes Alexander, who resents having to do military service for a system he doesn’t really believe in, and who escapes to the West shortly before the Wall comes down. Finally, there’s Alexander’s son, Markus.
Everything that had been taken for granted as good and worthy was changed.
‘Markus is the most tragic character in the book,’ Ruge says. ‘He sees the older generations’ struggles and ideals as mere history: irrelevant. But he has no ideals of his own. At that time, just after the Wall came down, there was no orientation. Teachers had no opinion. Norms had been broken down. Everything that had been taken for granted as good and worthy was changed. Before reunification, those in the GDR thought everything was so much better in the West. In effect, they were prisoners in the GDR, who could see, through advertising on TV, a world which looked so promising, and which they had no access to.’
‘There’s a saying in English’, I tell him, ‘that the other man’s grass is always greener’.
‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘It was like that, but it was also different.’
Ruge’s novel has been described as ‘a novel as important in the whole literature of the Cold War and its aftermath as anything written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’ (Philip Kerr). Did he set out to write a political heavyweight?
Ruge laughs. ‘No – I had no intention to write to a political or philosophical agenda. I wanted to write about my family and others like them. After the Wall fell, everyone blocked out the past. They sought a better life on the other side of the Wall, and put the past behind them. I wanted to keep history alive, and not let it fade. It’s the absence of history which makes Markus such a rootless, tragic figure, because he has no connection to the past. His parents’ divorce has also robbed him of connections.’
It strikes me that one of the most poignant scenes in the novel takes places at the funeral of Markus’s grandmother Irina. The cemetery is crowded, but Markus is an outsider, yet while listening to the eulogy he achieves a brief sense of belonging when he remembers kneeling on a chair as a child in his grandmother’s kitchen, helping her make her traditional dish of pelmeni. Food preparation and sharing play a large part in this story, as symbols of inheritance and the passing down of memories.
Much of the novel is based on Ruge’s own memories. He was born in the Urals to a Russian mother and a German father, and he moved to East Germany with his family as a small child. Ruge is of a similar age to the character Alexander and, like Alexander, he escaped to the West in the eighties. In Times of Fading Light opens and closes with Alexander’s experience. Immediately, there’s his diagnosis with cancer, and we become aware of the ‘fading light’ at a personal level. We see Alexander leave hospital and tend to his father, Kurt, now elderly and suffering dementia. Kurt has been a historian, and has scribbled lots of notes about his life, but they are patchy and barely coherent. Taking stock, Alexander decides on impulse to uproot and travel to Mexico, and soon we’re taken abroad, and also back in time.
I was curious to know how Ruge had approached the novel’s structure. Why he chose to travel backwards and forwards in time, rather than writing the story chronologically.
‘For different reasons,’ he says. ‘First, a linear story would be too big. By choosing to focus on selected episodes, I could draw out different elements and show them through time. Also, the gaps between the episodes also leave their mark. It’s the way memory works. Take Kurt’s story by way of example. I started with Kurt’s dementia because later, when the reader meets him as a younger, fit and active man, the loss is more poignant. I planned the book for a full year before I came to write it. It was important to me to get this right. Yet even the non-linear structure came about probably 75% as a result of intuitive work.’
The book moves around in time from 1952 to 2001 and points in between, with much of the focus on a single day in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Wall, when the family get together to celebrate Wilhelm’s 90 birthday. Ruge revisits this scene from the viewpoint of most of his characters.
‘I tried not to push my own perspective,’ he explains, ‘but rather, to allow the characters to express themselves.’ His writing has been compared to the work of Thomas Mann, but his style differs from Mann’s, not only in the use of that non-linear narrative, but also because Ruge has chosen a completely different narrative style. There is no authorial omniscience in In Times of Fading Light. Instead, he writes from the perspective of each character in turn, using a close third person focus and free indirect style. It’s a big cast of characters for the reader to engage with, but it works because Ruge has used this style with such skill to take us into the mind and motivations of each one.
Don’t authors use story to get across their own viewpoint?
He thinks about this. ‘My own opinion changes, still, from day to day. Socialism – communism – didn’t work. That’s clear. It was suppressive; repressive. Change was inevitable. There was no other way. But just because communism died doesn’t mean that capitalism will survive. The collapse of the system in East Germany and the USSR tells us that big systems can collapse. None may be exempt.’
For me, empathy is what distinguishes mankind from the animal kingdom.
He goes on, ‘So, really, I tried not to push my own perspective. For me, empathy is what distinguishes mankind from the animal kingdom. I wanted to write from the perspective of each character to build a full picture. I wanted a mosaic of different views and perspectives, all building to one bigger picture – something that approximates most closely to the truth – if it’s possible for anyone to pin down “truth”. Even under the dictatorship of the GDR there was a full emotional life. There were births, deaths, ideals and disappointments. Using this narrative form, I was able to show all of this. We can’t simply block out the past. We have to accept our earlier life as part of us – part of our personal and national history – and move on.’
I had so many questions to ask him about this novel. About the gender issues he explores through Charlotte’s point of view, for example, with the exotic Queen of the Night plant she never sees bloom, or about the significance of Mexico, where Charlotte and Wilhelm spent the war years in exile, and where Alexander, at the end, finds a little peace. But our interview time is running out. I ask him what’s next for Eugen Ruge? In Times of Fading Light is such a sweeping, all-encompassing novel. Could there be another one?
His voice rings with pleasure. ‘Oh, I’ve already got another out in Germany just now. After the reception for In Times of Fading Light, I thought this was sure to go nowhere, but Cabo de Gata has been well reviewed, and reached number six in Der Spiegel’s bestseller list last week! It’s amazing.’
His phrase reminds me of one from early in the book: ‘An amazing discovery’. That sums up how I feel about this first novel from 58-year-old Ruge. It’s good to know we’ll have something else from him to look forward to in a year or so. For now, I commend In Times of Fading Light. For the insight it gives to a way of life that’s gone, and for the absolute humanity of its characters. It’s a hugely fulfilling read, and one whose characters’ lives you’ll muse on long after you’ve put the book down.