In Time of Fading Light, by Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
In Time of Fading Light
Considering that Alexander has such a pivotal role, it is fascinating to witness the masterful characterisation of the insensitive Kurt evolve throughout the course of the narrative. The old man, who can no longer speak as the narrative opens, had once been a prolific historian, and before that, had also served his time in the Soviet gulag. He survived; a fact that invariably resurfaces during most family arguments.
His once lovely wife Irina – who had mastered the Soviet system, was skilled at bartering, could always present the great family feast, knew the secret of balancing the raw potatoes with the cooked, even if she could never quite acquire competent German – slowly drank herself to death.
But Kurt endures. In one of many dramatic and funny set pieces, Kurt attempts to reason with Alexander and avails of the only tool he has: rhetoric. Father and son bicker in the snow, while also attempting to find a restaurant without a queue.
Aside from Kurt’s sojourn in the gulag, Ruge rarely makes a polemical point. He prefers to poke fun at the old system of awarding medals of which the family patriarch, Kurt’s father, Wilhelm, has a burgeoning collection. He and his wife, Charlotte, Alexander’s grandparents, represent the deluded face of old-style comrade socialism. Their beliefs had brought them to Mexico in the 1950s. That period shapes Charlotte’s curious sense of self. She attempts to recreate Mexico in a corner of her East German home. It is to Mexico that the ill, despondent, yet still rebellious Alexander flees in middle age, attempting to retrace the steps of his grandparents and, more emphatically, to both find and lose his damaged self.
It is a narrative of exasperation; the characters are all confused and given to theatrical observations and spoken asides. Irina, broken by the pressures of having her old mother, a former Siberian peasant farmer, now holed up in her bedroom reeking of the rotten food she keeps hiding within Irina’s suburban German home, declaims: “It is terrible to be entirely surrounded by old people,” by which she is also referring to Kurt’s domineering parents. Kurt, as unfeeling as a computer, retorts: “Want me to move out?”
When Alexander flees to Mexico, where he searches in vain for a pair of ear plugs, one of the first things he does is buy a hat. Not because he needs or wants one. “He buys it to disown his father.”
So good, so funny, so robust, so cruelly realistic, Ruge’s politically apolitical, heartbreakingly realistic narrative juxtaposing Thomas Mann with The Simpsons and collective generational gnashing of teeth, is, despite its candour, deceptively subtle; silent weeping undercuts even the loudest laughter: and this is a very funny, serious and exceptional novel.