In Times of Fading Light
The historian John Lukacs observed, “Fictitious characters may represent characteristic tendencies and potentialities that existed in the past” and thus “may serve the historian under certain circumstances—when, for example, these are prototypical representations of certain contemporary realities.” Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light (translated by Anthea Bell) demonstrates the truth of this observation. It is much more than a “historical novel”; it is not a plot imposed on a “period background,” as much historical fiction is. Rather, it is a thoughtful exploration of certain themes and problems of East German history from the foundation of the GDR to reunification through (fictional) characters who exemplify the tendencies and traits prevalent among East Germans.
Ruge accomplishes this character-driven exploration of the past through vignettes, each seen through one of the members of a family. Some of these impressionistic glimpses show the same event through the perspective of different characters. The different views of Wilhelm Powileit’s ninetieth birthday party (six scenes in total) not only illuminate the actions of characters that at first seem incomprehensible; they also (perhaps more importantly) illustrate the influence of dominant generational qualities on the characters’ experience. For example, Kurt, a gulag survivor who came of age in the Second World War, shows only contempt for the obsequies poured on his stepfather Wilhelm, and ancient party functionary who spent most of his life in an office, while Wilhelm is disdainful of the influence of Gorbachev and the decline of support for the party. It is interesting to note the similarity between the perspectives of the semiliterate babushka Nadyeshda Ivanovna (whose worldview is not far removed from the Dark Ages) and her great-grandson, the hedonistic, tech-savvy Generation X Markus; both are only vaguely aware of what is happening at the party and the situation of East Germany.
Along with this examination of East German history are musings on the relationship of former East Germans with their past. Woven among these vignettes is the middle-aged Alexander’s trip to Mexico in September 2001. Inspired by his grandmother’s reminiscences of Mexico, Alexander attempts to take a brief respite from the reminders of his painful life in Germany (chief among them his senile father). But even in Mexico he encounters reminders of East Germany. He takes with him his father’s papers, partially unintelligible remnants of his family’s life over the last half century. The final great irony on this ostensible break from his past is when he unwittingly travels to the very spot on the Pacific coast where his grandparents vacationed. Perhaps this is symbolic that however they may try, East Germans cannot escape their past.
Ruge’s exploration of East German history ought to be a model for future authors (not only novelists) who are interested in historical problems. History is not only politics and war—it includes everything that humans did in the past. This includes the characteristics and relationships and inclinations of all people. No amount of psychology can show exactly how a real person thought; but the reconstruction of fictional characters, informed by a deep knowledge of dominant qualities of individuals and nations at a particular time, can illuminate certain historical realities far better than a thousand statistical surveys or the most detailed biography. And Eugen Ruge has accomplished that in his novel.