In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and collapse of the GDR, there have been many novels documenting life in the former Eastern Bloc. A recent book to emerge from the rubble is Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light. Casting pivotal moments in twentieth-century Soviet history as a backdrop, Ruge narrows in on the upheavals of one family over the course of four generations.

What’s most remarkable about this historical fiction is the way it foregrounds the personal over the political. Borrowing from his own family history, Ruge brings to life the humdrum existences of those Berliners trying to eke out a living behind the Iron Curtain. Despite the repressive conditions, and that one character is sent to a Gulag, the novel is never bleak. It is strangely humorous at times – Ruge’s characters sooner bicker over whose turn it is to cook than commit espionage. It’s a fascinating perspective on a time and place commonly depicted through a different gaze.

With its strong emphasis on patriarchal lineage and family drama, this novel has an old-fashioned feel to it (a sentiment also encouraged by the inclusion of a ‘character list’ on the contents page). Stylistically, though, it’s very modern. Reading it requires patience: time switches frequently, as does the narrator’s point of view. As a result, this book should be appreciated not for its sum but for its very well-rounded parts.

Anthea Bell must be acknowledged for her translation: her beautiful turn of phrase guides the reader through Ruge’s grey housing estates of Germany to the snowy fields of Russia to the sun-drenched shores of Mexico. It’s incredible to think Bell is producing such fine work well into her seventies. In Times of Fading Light was awarded the German Book Prize in 2011, and in translation, it will hopefully earn Bell the wider recognition she’s long deserved.

Emily Laidlaw is a freelance reviewer.