9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and so it seemed fitting to review a book dealing with East Germany for German Lit Month.
In Times Of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (trans. Anthea Bell) is described in the blurb on the jacket as :’The intertwining of love, life and politics under the GDR regime’ and had been sitting on my TBR for some time.
The book spans the years 1953 to 2001and follows the fortunes of the Umnitzer/Powileit clan.In many respects it resembles Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in that it follows a family during a period of social and political upheaval and is built around the birthday celebrations of the patriarch Wilhelm. On 1st October 1989 Wilhelm is celebrating his 90th birthday. A large party has been arranged at which Wilhelm must not find out that his grandson has just fled to the West.
The family consists of Wilhelm Powileiter who is the second husband of Charlotte ; Charlotte’s son by her first marriage, Kurt, and his Russian wife, Irina, whose mother Nadyeshda Ivanova, has come to live with them. Finally we have Alexander (Sasha) and Markus, Kurt’s son and grandson.
Ostensibly Wilhelm is a successful man by GDR standards. A Party stalwart from the times of the Weimar Republic, he has served the Party in Russia and Mexico before returning to the ‘ new’ Germany in 1953. As the story unfolds, however, we discover that all is not as it seems.
The narrative doesn’t follow a conventional timeline. We hop backwards and forwards in time and switch from character to character, each giving their own point of view. This meant it took a while for me to be able to follow events. There is, helpfully, a list of characters at the start of the book and the style does have the effect of giving a panoramic view of life in the GDR and the aftermath of its break-up.
Wilhelm’s marriage to Charlotte is a sham, as is the myth of his service to the Party and state. Kurt’s own marriage to Irina is strained and built on half truths and things unspoken.Alexander has a difficult relationship with his parents and his own son, Markus.Markus, a young teenager in November 1989, finds life difficult in post-Wall Germany. Charlotte longs for her life in Mexico and is haunted by the fate of her brother under the Nazis and her other son, Werner, killed in Russia.
The secrets which bind the family together mirror the lies of the East German state, where history is constantly being twisted to suit the ruling party’s ends. Kurt reflects on the political speech given in Wilhelm’s honour :
Nothing in the address really corresponded to the facts, thought Kurt, still clapping; Wilhelm had not been a ‘founding member”of the Party (he was originally a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, and didn’t join the Communist Party of Germany until the two united), nor was it true that he had been wounded during the Kapp Putsch ( he had indeed been wounded but not in 1920 during the putsch, in 1921 during the so-called March action, a catastrophic failure, but of course that didn’t suit the biography of a class warrior so well). Worse than these little half-truths, however, was the large amount left out, worse was the egregious silence about what Wilhelm was doing in the twenties. At the time – as Kurt remembered very well- Wilhelm had been a staunch champion of the United Front policy prescribed by the Soviet Union, which denigrated the Social Democrat leaders as “social fascists” and even presented them – by comparison to the Nazis- as the greater of two evils.
All this sounds very turgid and depressing however there are some great comic moments , not least the ‘ climax of Wilhelm’s birthday path. Irina’s mother , who has never managed to master German provides much humour too as she observes a people whose ways she cannot understand ;
Yes, of course she’d wanted to learn German when she came to Germany, she , she used to sit down and bone up on the German letters every day, but then, when she knew all the letters by heart, when she knew the entire German alphabet, she made an astounding discovery : she still didn’t know German. So then she gave up, it was pointless, such a difficult, mysterious language, the words scratched your throat like dry bread, Koontentak you said on meeting someone, good day, and Affeederseyn, until we meet again, on parting, or the other way round , Affeederseyn, Kootentak, such a lot of trouble to take over just saying hello and goodbye.
The novel is only 308pp long but covers a lot of ground. The book ends as it starts, with Alexander. There are no easy conclusions to be drawn but he does, at last, appear to have reached a sort of peace.
In Times Of Fading Light is published by Faber & Faber