As The Lights Grow Dim…

Until last year, my German-language reading had mainly been limited to classics, but I have recently been making an effort to try some more contemporary fare.  Last November’s German Literature Month was a good opportunity to read some modern books (and get a lot of recommendations too!), and I was fortunate enough to leave the month with an unexpected bonus…

You see, I was lucky enough to win a book in a giveaway held by Lizzy (one of the month’s hosts), namely Eugen Ruge’s In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (In Times of Diminishing Light).  The giveaway was for the shortlist for the 2011 Deutscher Buch Preis, the German equivalent of the Man Booker Prize or the Prix Goncourt, and my choice turned out to be the eventual winner – so I was expecting something very good indeed 🙂

Ruge’s debut novel is a wide-ranging story of a German family, set against the backdrop of the now defunct German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  Divided into twenty chapters following three distinct timelines, the book is told (in the third-person) by several members of the Umnitzer family: Wilhelm and Charlotte, heroes of the republic, communists since before the war; Charlotte’s son Kurt, a former prisoner in Siberia who becomes a prominent GDR academic; Kurt’s Russian wife Irina and her mother Nadjeshda;  Kurt and Irina’s grandson Markus…

…oh, and let’s not forget Markus’ dad Alexander, or Sascha, as he’s also known.   If a main character has to be chosen it would be Alexander, as one of the main strands, set in 2001, follows him on his travels in Mexico, attempting to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis.  Then again, as he is mainly absent during the other two strands (one describing the events of a party on the first of October 1989, the other starting in 1952 and ending in 1995), he might not be such a good choice for a central character after all…

As you can see from the incoherent ramblings above, pinning down what this book is all about is actually quite tricky.  One of the blurbs on the back of my copy describes it as “the great GDR Buddenbrooks novel” (referring to Thomas Mann’s famous story of the decay of a north-German family), and the allusion is apt.  The Umnitzers, in their own modest way, are a communist dynasty, laden with medals and well-known in socialist ranks.  However, when the change comes, and the wall tumbles, it seems that their time has run out.

Just as much as it is about the family though, it is also the story of a country that is fading away.  When Charlotte and Wilhelm return from Mexico to Berlin in 1952 to take up their responsibility of building up the new country, the dream of a uniquely German socialist state is still a heady one, an intoxicating vision of an ideal future.  As the years progress though, we see the reality of East-German communism, the plastic cars, the crumbling buildings, the power shortages…  While stalwarts like Wilhelm continue to believe in the system, others feel that the country has lost its way, some (like Alexander) hoping to leave it behind for good.  In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts is definitely not an adherent of the Ostalgie trend of pining for the good old days of the GDR.

Ruge tells his story by using seven members of the Umnitzer family as his eyes, and it’s a credit to him that even I, with my limited German, was able to distinguish between the different voices.  From Kurt’s dry, academic prose, to Irina’s confused, accented German, each character is instantly recognisable – and at the same time very different to the image you have of them from other people’s descriptions.  The only section I wasn’t too keen on was young Markus’s part – the teen slang seemed a little forced (perhaps Ruge is a little too far divorced from his teen years to make this voice sound authentic…).

The older voices though were excellent.  I loved the interpretation of Nadjeshda’s Russian, translated into German with irregular features, such as the doubling of verbs in a very un-German manner, and the quasi-phonetic rendering of Irina’s attempts to get her head around the German language’s short and long vowels.  I’m also pretty sure that there was a lot of East-German German in the novel (most of which probably went well over my head); I constantly found myself stumbling over unfamiliar past-tense verb forms, ones which appeared to be irregular variants of the more common regular forms I’m used to.  If any native speaker happens to be reading this, I’d be very happy if someone could tell me if this is/was a feature of the east-German language…

In case you were wondering, I loved this book.  It’s a monumental effort, a complex, tangled web of narrative, a construction which conceals whatever lies at the core of the novel.  The postmodern, chaotic structure of the book, moving backwards and forwards in time, seen through the eyes of an array of characters, may not appeal to everyone (there is definitely a need to trust the writer and believe that things will be explained eventually…), but it is a wonderful example of how a good writer can tell a story in a non-linear way.

But what actually is at the core of the story?  It’s not that easy to say.  The book conceals more than it reveals, and unusually for a novel on this subject, it actually avoids most of the expected topics.  Despite covering fifty years of German history, we only hear about political events in passing, long after they have lost their immediate impact; the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, is barely mentioned.  This is just as true for the family history as it is for the wider one.   There are several important events which occur outside the narrative, keeping us guessing, of which many are never really resolved.

The title itself is probably a clue to the main ideas though.  I originally translated it in my head as ‘In Times of Fading Light’, as I thought that sounded more natural in English than ‘In Time of Diminishing Light’.  However, the title actually comes from a line in the story of Nadjeshda, the old Russian mother-in-law, when she looks back at her life in Russia.  She remembers the time of the potato harvest, the point of the year where the days begin to get shorter, and the amount of daylight begins to diminish.  It’s a wonderful metaphor for the time of greatest triumph being the start of an inevitable decline, with obvious parallels for the story as a whole.

In the end though, perhaps finding a central idea to the story isn’t that important.  In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (which, apparently, is currently being translated into English by Anthea Bell) is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, one I’d highly recommend.  Perhaps it’s apt for a book seemingly constructed around an empty core that the central topic is a country which doesn’t exist…

5 thoughts on “As The Lights Grow Dim…

  1. I was very keen on reading this last year but have so many other German books I haven't read yet. I'm glad it was good, so when it comes out in paperback I may still consider it. I like what you write about the differences of voices. Interesting that the fall of the wall doesn't occupy a lot of space but the again it was a short moment and may have been more impressive for us outside…

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  2. I think it was intentional on the writer's part to avoid the big history moments – he wanted to show them from a distance, with perspective. The book is more about what happens after these events, when the dust has settled…

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  3. Gary – As I mentioned, I was informed that it is being translated into English, so I'm sure this one will be a hit with non-German speakers before too many years have passed 🙂

    Stu – Steady and slow will get you there Stu! In the first year of my blog, I didn't read much in German, and it took me a lot longer than it does now. I'm very glad I made the effort, and I can assure you that if you stick with it, it will get easier 🙂

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