In Time of Fading Light, by Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
In Time of Fading Light
In life and in fiction family retains its old tyrannies as Eugen Ruge so brilliantly illustrates in this intelligent, factual and often shockingly funny debut novel. The wry humour more than compensates for the curt, businesslike prose style: “The sky was blue, what else?”
From the opening sentence Ruge, the half-German, half-Russian mathematician son of a historian father, makes his intention clear; this is not going to be a delicately literary, if clearly memoir-based narrative wallowing in nostalgia. “He had spent two days lying like the dead on his buffalo-leather sofa.” This “he”, quickly to emerge as the key character and apparently Ruge’s most likely alter ego, or at least the one with whom he has most in common, rises and takes a shower, “to wash away the last traces of hospital atmosphere”.
Alexander Umnitzer, the man on the sofa, is no Oblomov. Instead he has just been informed by a noncommittal doctor that he is dying or is, at least, “inoperable”. Having begun to absorb this, he drives off to visit his elderly father who has lost his mind, but not his appetite. The old man, Kurt, “didn’t eat with relish” or even because he enjoyed the taste, he ate only to live, or so his son, the dying man, reasons.
As he watches his father pack the food into his mouth, he reflects on the fact that he had considered killing him. “He had played out variants of the scene in his head: smothering Kurt with his pillow, or maybe – the perfect murder – serving him a tough steak. Like the steak on which he had nearly choked.”
This terrific opening sequence, a son speaking to a previously unsympathetic father who has become incapable of speech, takes place in 2001. Ruge makes clear within a few paragraphs that the action is set in what was East Germany and remains a grim, depressed place, still bearing the marks of its former communist self. “Measurements of time. Twelve years ago, the fall of the Wall. Inaccessibly far away now. All the same, he tried to trace the course of those years – what did twelve years amount to?”
Shortly before the collapse of the old GDR, just as it reached its 40th anniversary, never to see its 41st, Alexander had defected to the West. “. . . he had gone away and come back again (even if the country to which he came back had disappeared). . .” His mother had died during the interval, “six years ago”. He had met a new woman three years earlier.
Ruge’s focus is Alexander’s state of mind, his thoughts, memories and observations. Alexander is the filter; it is as if he is the only thinking character, he supplies the most information, or rather, it is through his fragmented responses and regrets that the most data is revealed. It is very clever. Particularly, as elsewhere, through sequences concerned with other characters, all family members, Alexander is presented alternatively as a child making “amazing discoveries”, as a rebellious teenager and, most effectively, as a disgruntled young man who has left his wife and child because of her infidelity.
All of the elements are cast about, like so many clues, dropped here and there, apparently randomly. Yet nothing is random, there is an impressive cohesion at work. Ruge’s authorial grasp of his material, his intentions, his tormented and tormenting characters is most assured without ever becoming rigid. Instead he articulates the multiple confusions of life, the despair, the relentlessness, the doomed hopes, the crazy ideas to which an individual as single-minded as Kurt, robotic and unfaithful, must cling.
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.