Eugen Ruge’s novel In Times of Fading Light is a generational saga of a failed state, the story of one how one family lived through the lifespan of the German Democratic Republich (GDR) or East Germany as it’s known in the west.
It’s an interesting if not quite compelling story.
Narratively the novel is something of a jumble, which any readers may find a challenge. The book jumps back and forth through time to several key events in the life of one family: a birthday party, a holiday feast, time spent in Mexico. This is a device I’ve encountered before so it neither put me off or nor impressed me much until about halfway through the novel when the narrative started to revisit scenes already covered but with the focus on a different character. While this device works very well in books like The Slap, here I found it repetitive rather than illustrative. Going over the same scene from another point of view became just going over the same scene one too many times.
The story itself is a bit run-of-the-mill which I realize may be the point. The family is fairly ordinary, no brave heros or outright villians. Their lives are probably meant to stand as representative of more day-to-day people, the people who survived, thrived at times, endured at other times. If you’re looking for an exposee of how horrible life was in East Germany, you won’t find it here. Nor will you find all that much to admire. It was hard for me to see just how the GDR lasted as long as it did or why anyone would really want it to in In Times of Fading Light.
That said, there are things to recommend in Mr. Ruge’s novel.
While in the end, few tears were shed for East Germany, Mr. Ruge does give us a window on why so many people supported it in the first place. Take the character of Charlotte who did quite well in East Germany, at least at first.
In the Communisty Party she found respect and appreciation for the first time. Only the Communists, whom she had originally take for bandits of some kind (as a child she always thought that Communists came into houses and pulled the sheets off neatly made beds, because her mother used to say they were opposed to good order)– only the Communists had seen her talents, had encouraged her to study foreign languages, had given her political tasks, and while her brother, Carl-Gustav, for whose art studies her mother had saved ferociously–to this day Charlotte remembered, bitterly, how she was told to watch the whistling kettle so as to save gas, and how her mother used to hit her on the back of the head with the breadboard if she forgot to turn the whistling kettle off at the right time, which was just before it whistled–while Carl-Gustave, then, had failed as an artist and immersed himself in the gay scene of Berlin, she, who had spent only four terms at domestic science college, was now on her way back to Germany to be head of the Institute for Languages and Literature, and the only thing she regretted was that her mother wasn’t around to know about this triumph, that she couldn’t send her mother a succinct note on a letterhead saying it was from Charlotte Powileit, Institute Director.
That’s a pretty good insight into why so many people supported Communism before the Seond World War and after–it provided an equality of opportunity that was not available to many people under capitalism. That’s also one heck of a sentence.
Which is the second thing to appreciate about In Times of Fading Light– the brave use of very long sentences. Of course, while I liked them, they are also something many readers will find challening.
The final thing which I found fascinating about In Times of Fading Light was the insight it provided into what it’s like to see your way of life abandoned the way Socialist Culture was, so quickly and so completely. When the Berlin Wall falls in 1989, some of the family members are young and ready to finally get the western life they’d only dreamed of, others are middle aged–forced to start over when they should be at the top of their careers, and some are elderly, expecting to recieve the rewards of a job well done only to find themselves not just redundant but forgotten. The grandfather who recieved large numbers of important visitors on his birthday each year under communism only gets a handful of very minor assistants once the system he spent his life working for collaspes.
I guess I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad review. There were several things I really enjoyed reading about In Times of Fading Light and I admired the long, long sentences. I liked the book well enough to read it through to the end which is saying something. I’m not someone who has to finish everything I start. Life is too short and my TBR stack too haigh for that. But In Times of Fading Light is not a book I’d recommend.