In Times of Fading Light, by Eugen Ruge translated by Anthea Bell, Faber, RRP£14.99 / Graywolf Press, RRP$26, 320 pages
On October 7 1989 East Germany turned 40. For the leaders of the first self-certified “workers’ and peasants’ state on German soil”, this was a moment of great celebration, occasion for a party to which all the top brass of the communist world were invited.
It was a miserable affair. Against a backdrop of overbearing security, deployed in a vain attempt to stifle the political storm that would change the world, doddery old men did their best to appear statesmanlike. It was left to the star guest, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, at 58 one of the youngsters on parade, to deliver cutting advice to his hosts: “He who comes too late is punished by life.” The German Democratic Republic did not survive to see its 41st birthday.
Another birthday party in October 1989 is at the centre of Eugen Ruge’s wonderful debut novel In Times of Fading Light, a German bestseller that tells the story of the GDR over 50 years through four generations of a family. Wilhelm Powileit, a comrade of “the first hour” who has seen exile in Mexico and undercover work in West Germany, is celebrating his 90th. Family and comrades gather; an expensive spread is laid on, and yet another medal is awarded to Wilhelm for services to party and country.
Here, in suburban cosiness, the wider collapse of the system played out so publicly a few days later on the official grandstands in central East Berlin is captured in a domestic microcosm. Wilhelm’s grandson is absent, having recently absconded to the west via Hungary. No one dares tell the grandfather who, in fleeting moments of lucidity, rages against winds of reform blowing in from the east thanks to the man he dismisses as “Chev”. His daughter-in-law, resourceful Russian Irina, has stayed home to drink away her sadness. His wife does her best to avoid him, while the cleaning lady dispenses enough charm to secure generous cash handouts from the birthday boy. All the while the very fabric of the house is disintegrating, the result of years of shoddy DIY work by Wilhelm and his mates, who still like to gather to talk big politics.
Fading light and the sense of things drawing to a close – Wilhelm does not make it to 91 – weave their way through the novel. The story opens and closes in 2001 with Irina’s son – Alexander – who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. After a farewell to his senile father he travels to Mexico to retrace the steps of his grandparents. You sense he will not return.
Between those two points, Ruge – the half-German, half-Russian son of a historian born in exile in the Urals – moves back and forth in time and between narrators to build up a textured portrait of a family and society where lines between the personal and the political are blurred. He avoids the twin pitfalls of writing about the GDR: the misty-eyed “ostalgie” that claims it wasn’t that bad after all; or, at the other extreme, the chronicle of woe in which all humanity has been extinguished by the Stasi. Instead, this is an unsentimental and at times comic portrayal of a society that was always an oddball. Created and sustained by an occupying power, the GDR was never master of its destiny.
Ruge uses individual stories and even the mediocrity of daily life to reveal warmth and humour but also suffering, betrayal and lies. Wartime horrors and time in the Gulag, professional lies and private infidelities are not laboured, making them all the more powerful.
Some of the domestic details tell you more than a library’s-worth of dry political and economic analysis. The barter system that enabled many East Germans to negotiate a dysfunctional command economy is delightfully captured in Irina’s reminiscing of how a gift of caviar from a Red Army officer is ultimately converted into the rare dried fruits that adorn her Christmas goose. Between sturgeons’ eggs and dried apricots lie ceramics, skylights, smoked eels, and favours bought from the butcher, garage mechanic and a colleague’s father. Anyone who never witnessed life in the eastern bloc may find this a bit far-fetched; for those who did, it is all too plausible.
Irina is adept at working this system – deploying the sharp-elbowed savvy that got her out of the misery of provincial Stalinist Russia – but she is lost in the post-unification world where new rules apply.
Ruge is one of those easterners who did make the transition, moving to the west just before the fall of the wall. His prose style may not be the most beautiful but the story he tells convinces, vividly evoking that brave new world for which life, as Gorbachev foresaw, had other plans.
Frederick Studemann is the FT’s comment and analysis editor and a former Berlin correspondent