Throughout the violent twentieth century, the region that might have undergone the most unsettling political transitions is the land formerly known as Prussia. The center of the German Empire at the outbreak of the First World War, it became, in turn, the hub of the Weimar Republic; the heart of Hitler’s Third Reich; a Soviet satellite, dubbed the German “Democratic” Republic; and finally, reunited with its capitalist Western twin, half of the new Federal Republic of Germany. How many shifting political systems and orthodoxies has it had to accept, or pretend to accept, during that time! Enough to induce a schizophrenic outlook even in the sanest person.
Eugen Ruge’s darkly comical new novel, In Times of Fading Light, captures this schizophrenia as it works its way through three generations of a suburban Berlin family. The middle-class, unremarkable Umnitzers have been at the center of radical political change throughout much of the century, participants — often unwilling ones — in the inevitable cultural hypocrisy. Even the family home and its furnishings reflect this strange century of German history: when the Umnitzers take possession of the house after World War II, all they throw out is “the cutlery with the tiny swastika engraved after the owner’s initials, with the result that guests in this house ate their cake off Nazi plates — but with spoons made by nationalized industry.”
The Umnitzer patriarch, Wilhelm, born in 1899, is a Communist Party hack; despite a thoroughly undistinguished career (he spent years exiled in Mexico as a mechanic, a bodyguard, and, it is hinted, a hit man) in his old age he has through sheer force of personality made himself an object of reverence to the toadies that flock about him. His ninetieth birthday, celebrated only weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a great comic set piece in which these grotesques proliferate. Wilhelm’s wife, Charlotte, on the strength of four terms at a domestic science college and on the unspoken condition that she will always uphold the Party line, is awarded a sinecure as head of the Institute for Literature and Languages at the Academy of Political Science and Jurisprudence. “Only the Communists, whom she had originally taken for bandits of some kind…had seen her talents, had encouraged her to study foreign languages, had given her political tasks,” she reflects. Her loyalty does occasionally waver — she is haunted by the thought that she should perhaps have stayed in Mexico and married the man she fell half in love with there — but her fealty to the system has been bought and paid for, and she doesn’t allow herself any regrets.
Ruge’s idea of making Wilhelm and Charlotte’s son Kurt a historian — in fact “one of the most productive historians of the German Democratic Republic” (note the adjective) — was an inspiration, for of all the species of intellectuals who must prostitute their craft before the demands of totalitarianism, the lies of historians are the most obvious. As George Orwell wrote in 1946, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism…. [A liberal historian] believes that the past cannot be altered and that a correct knowledge of history is valuable as a matter of course. From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned…. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.” So it is with Kurt, who spends a thirty-year career toiling away to fill a meter of shelf space on German history as “created” by Soviet fiat, and wakes up one day to find that it is nothing but wastepaper.
Kurt is in many ways a ridiculous figure, but Ruge is not gratuitously cruel to his characters, and in the end we find him more tragic than culpable. As an idealistic young Communist during the Nazi rise to power, he went to the Soviet Union to fight for socialism, only to be packed off to the gulag after an unguarded remark about the Hitler-Stalin pact. There Kurt suffered and his brother died; later, exiled in the Siberian village of Slava, he met his Russian wife, Irina, whom he eventually brought back to Germany when he was rehabilitated. Who can blame him, really, for giving in before what appeared to be an ultimate power? And to his credit he does finally, at the age of eighty and safely after the collapse of the Soviet regime, write one honest book: a memoir describing his time in the gulag. Although it does not become an international success (it might have if Kurt had been brave enough to write it twenty years previously), “it was still, like it or not, an important, unique book, a book that would ‘live.’ “
Kurt and Irina have one son, Alexander (Sasha), born around 1955 — Ruge’s own birth year, not coincidentally. By the time he has reached manhood, during the transformative 1970s, generations of lies, of shifting party lines and orthodoxies, have eaten away all remnants of true political faith. Performing his military service at the age of eighteen, the hapless Sasha feels hopelessly isolated from everything exciting that is happening out there. “[H]e would never hear the Rolling Stones live, he would never see Paris or Rome or Mexico, would never see Woodstock, never even see West Berlin with its nude demos and student riots, its free love and its Extraparliamentary Opposition, none of that…because between here and there, between one world and another, between the small narrow world where he would have to spend his life and the other big, wide world where real true life was lived — because between those two worlds there was a border, and it was one that he, Alexander Umnitzer, would soon have to guard.”
History is on his side, but not quite soon enough, and he makes his inevitable escape only weeks before the fall of the Wall — on his grandfather’s birthday, in fact — an irony that is not lost on Kurt. “He really ought to be told, thought Kurt, trying to imagine Wilhelm’s face: today, on your birthday, he’d have to say, your grandson has decided he’s fed up with the whole gang of you, many happy returns.”
The strength of this often funny, sometimes moving novel is its unwavering psychological realism. None of the Umnitzers is any better than he or she should be; then again, none of them is any worse. Unheroic, all-too-human, they do the best they can in harsh circumstances, and while most of them are at some point both laughable and despicable, one realizes that few of us would do much better in their place. With real skill, Ruge shows us historical change through a variety of viewpoints. Kurt, whose cynicism has been hard-earned, sees all German history reflected in his father’s strange trajectory:
In fact, thought Kurt, still clapping away, Wilhelm, objectively considered, was one of those personally responsible for the way the forces of the left had torn each other apart during the twenties, allowing fascism to emerge triumphant…. Even after the ‘seizure of power’ by the Nazis, of which no mention was made in the story of his life, Wilhelm supported the idea of social fascism, which was not to be officially corrected until 1935, only to be outdone in stupidity and obscenity a few years later by the Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany: lies, all of it, thought Kurt, carrying on with the clapping. The 1920s as a whole had been one huge lie — and the 1930s after them as well.
This is the analysis of an intelligent, educated man, one who has not been entirely corrupted by a lifetime of lies and who, in spite of everything, has retained a kernel of the socialist idealism that inspired him as a teenager in the 1930s. The foggy ideas of an uneducated peasant, in this case Irina’s Russian mother, Nadyeshda Ivanovna — Baba Nadya — are just as telling. The life story of Baba Nadya, who was born around 1910, encapsulates the twentieth-century history of her country just as Kurt’s does his: she lost her father in World War I, endured starvation and arctic cold during a four-year flight across Siberia during the subsequent civil war — both her sisters died of the hardships she somehow managed to survive — and made it through decades of bare subsistence living in grindingly poor Slava. Her ignorance, even in old age and living comfortably in the GDR, is astounding: she confuses West Germany with America, knowing only that both are rich, capitalist, and unutterably alien. Her memories of Slava, told in internal monologue form, come as close to poetry as anything in the novel.
In Times of Fading Light has been spectacularly translated by Anthea Bell, so well that it doesn’t seem like a translation at all. Only one thing is missing from this fine edition, and that is an introduction with some sort of historical background. Americans “of a certain age” will understand the references, but those under forty, who grew up in the post-Soviet world, will probably be lost unless they have some sort of explanation of what was happening in East Germany between 1910 and 1990. It would be a pity if this book were only enjoyed by older people and specialists, for it is an important novel that gives the reader a far more vivid picture of life in this strange, now-lost Neverland than any amount of historical or sociological prose could do.