Eugen Ruge’s impressive debut novel, “In Times of Fading Light,” follows the travails of four generations of the Umnitzer family both in their native East Germany and abroad. The novel’s vague and rather prosaic subtitle, “The Story of a Family,” does the book a disservice; “The Decline of a Family” would have been more apt, had Thomas Mann not gotten there first in “Buddenbrooks.” For Ruge’s absorbing tale charts the family’s steady disintegration as East Germany also crumbles, providing the reader with a vivid portrait of political and personal upheaval.
The novel opens in 2001 as Alexander Umnitzer, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, takes leave of Kurt, his sick father, and departs for Mexico, the land of his grandparents’ exile in the 1940s. From there we are tugged back to 1952 and witness Wilhelm and Charlotte and other East German comrade-émigrés doing the good work of the Party in Mexico. A pattern develops: Ruge shunts us backwards and forward through the years, shuffling the deck of snapshots of the family’s history — Kurt as a younger man sent to a gulag for 10 years for denigrating Stalin, Alexander’s rejection of the Socialist cause and his subsequent traitorous escape to the West — until gradually, incrementally, he reveals the whole picture. However, we return with regularity to one date, Oct. 1, 1989, just prior to the fall of the Wall, for the family’s gathering for Wilhelm’s 90th birthday and the showdown and fallout that ensues.
Such chopping and changing of character and era is entrancing, particularly as Ruge leaves us on tenterhooks at the end of a section, eager to discover how a conflict gets resolved. He dexterously switches perspective, jumping from Alexander at age 4 (“Papa was very tall and very strong and knew everything”) to doddery old Wilhelm at the opposite end of the spectrum whose “head was empty. Nothing in it but the gurgling of the bathwater.” Equally effective is the way Ruge always ensures that the family remains at the heart of his fractured narrative. World events unfold around each member but are relegated to background noise. The Americans landing in Cuba in 1961 is a passing comment; in September 2001 Alexander is indifferent to his fellow passengers glued to their newspapers “with a picture on the front page of an airplane flying into a skyscraper.”
At first glance, “In Times of Fading Light” seems overambitious, demanding a significant investment of the reader’s patience, and we wonder if Ruge has bitten off more than he can chew. But the more we read, the more we fall under his spell. The scrambled narrative enables him to constantly wrong-foot us by showing his characters at unexpected angles. Also, we are presented with a catalog of “after” shots — one character is an alcoholic, another a disillusioned Communist functionary — and there is pleasure to be had in discovering the “before” scenarios and joining the dots. The result is a shrewd and very knowing novel, slippery with the truth and packed tight with compressed tension, and written by a talented new voice.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.