English Translation: In Times of Fading Light, translated by Anthea Bell, Minneapolis: Grey Wolf Press, 2013.
Book review by UC Berkeley undergraduate Jennifer Lau
Family dynamics, interestingly enough, rarely change across time. Society progresses and human beings adapt, but internal relations among those who share blood and genetics remain mostly the same. The literary fiction novel, In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (2011), presents the story of a family struggling to adapt to their setting amidst political uncertainty surrounding the rise and fall of the GDR while reconciling their ideals, identity and freedom.
The topic of multiculturalism is prevalent throughout the novel as we follow a family that originated from the Soviet Union, defected to Mexico, returned to East Germany and then defected again. The story of the Umnitzer family encompasses fifty years of history, a multitude of attempts to assimilate into three different countries and tugs the reader along on a personal journey as the family experiences significant 20th century events from the periphery while simultaneously preparing their elaborate meals. Although the focus of the novel remains primarily on the domesticity of the clan, the historical context, which ranges from the advent of Stalinism to 9/11, outlines the differing core values and opinions between the older and younger generations as the state evolves.
Each generation of the Umnitzer family represents different attitudes toward communist rule as they interact with the slowly changing realities of the political spectrum and their environment. The patriarch Wilhelm Umnitzer and his wife Charlotte are loyal communists that believed in the “cause” and returned from exile in Mexico to live in the newly established GDR out of love for their party. Their two sons, Werner and Kurt, exemplify hopeful communist youths who have been influenced by their parents’ ideologies since birth, until both were thrown in the gulag where Werner eventually died and Kurt was released with a disillusioned outlook on the system. Kurt’s son, Alexander, escapes to the West due to the heavy restrictions of the East Germany and only returns in present-day after being diagnosed with cancer. All three generations face parallels in reconciling their desires with the socially accepted status quo, but in the end, their hopes turn into disappointments as the society they were familiar with disintegrated along with the Soviet bloc.
Alexander Umnitzer, who opens and ends the nonlinear narrative, shows the strongest sense of “never quite belonging” and “not fitting in” wherever he resided. His grandparents’ strong communist ideas and affiliations embarrass him as western values make their way to the East and leads him to defect. As the first Umnitzer to abandon the ingrained communist mindset, Alexander faced a warring internal battle between what he was taught with what he wanted out of life, eventually leaving Europe in search of answers to fully comprehend his family’s history. Each chapter jumps among different family members, who narrate their notable decades, and exposes the gradual regression of the family’s political philosophies and attitudes. The values that built the family have a much darker reality, one with rampant despotism and oppression that prompted the death of Werner Umnitzer.
As the rest of eastern Europe progressively transforms into a more westernized society with principles such as democracy and capitalism becoming mainstream, the novel observes the effect of social change and the prevailing themes of memory, impermanence and nostalgia on individuals and families. Eugen Ruge depicts a clan who is just as sanguine, depraved and flawed as their Western counterparts, inserting humanity into a subject that typically portrays East Germans in an unflattering light. As insinuated by the title, the political utopia that began with the creation of the GDR slowly declines along with the Umnitzer family as both respectively succumb to crises and illnesses.