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3.8 out of 5 stars
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3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 13 August 2013
I thoroughly enjoyed this. Well drawn characters. A lot of humour. Easy to read. Thought provoking.

Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, and each is essentially a short story set in a different time (and place). The chapters are not presented in chronological sequence (which produces some odd effects, such as when a character dies in one chapter and comes back to life in the next). This device works well. It allows the author gradually to unveil the plot, keeps the reader interested, and produces a well crafted overall structure.

The range covered by the book is enormous, from pre revolutionary Russia to contemporary western society after 9/11. The situation in which the central family finds itself, as East Germany fades away, is absolutely fascinating, and perfectly brought out in the novel.

I liked the way the author remains detached, offering a balanced view of the changing political climate. I do not agree with another reviewer who dismisses the main characters as bone headed for their support of the GDR, and neither I am sure would the author. Instead, the author offers a clear eyed critique of the western system as well as the communist one. In the chapter describing the youth culture of 1995, I couldn't help feeling some regret for the passing of the GDR.

I have only one reservation which prevented me giving five stars, and that was the chapters set in Mexico in 2001, which did not seem, to me at least, on the same level as the others.

Overall highly recommended
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on 17 December 2015
I loved this novel. It follows a family living in Berlin – East Berlin – over 50 years to 2001. It is not a dull political tome about dreary lives under communism. It is about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, not spies and informers. A diverse cast is brought to life. Each character is given the chance to tell their own tale. Women are central and strong and suffering. The author writes with humour and compassion. It has an exquisite sadness.

We go back and forth in time. Again and again we return to 1 October 1989, the occasion of Wilhelm’s 90th birthday. Each time we attend in the company of a different character – Wilhelm, his wife Charlotte, son Kurt, Kurt's wife, Irina, grandson Alexander and even great grandson Marcus. We get the whole picture of this family not just the perspective of one who narrates.

The author uses set pieces to great effect - a funeral, of course, but ordinary meals, special meals and Christmas dinners. It is over the table that the family comes together and breaks apart – in one coup de theatre the table itself collapses.

Meal times illuminate society and economy. Irina is preparing Christmas dinner in 1976. I got enough information to consider tackling Monastery Goose myself, but – to the point – key ingredients have to be obtained on the black market. Irina recounts exactly how – through multiple exchanges and to her intense satisfaction she acquired apricots. A later family meal in rectified Berlin – no problem with the dishes there - exposes a hollow home life, comfortable but controlling; a cold father is preparing the food, not a warm mother, and you can taste the difference.

By the final years of the DDR the light is fading too for the older characters. The author offers really acute insights into confusion in the elderly – how the world appears to them and how they appear to the world. Irina brings her mother to live with her and Kurt, all the way from the Urals. Nadyeshda is old and almost illiterate – she is not sure if Germany is in America or if Germany is America. It is not working out. Irina now finds her very presence taxing. Simple sentences capture it perfectly - “The door of Nadyeshda Ivanovna’s room opened with a long-drawn-out creak. Her mother appeared in the kitchen”. A long-drawn-out creak.

There is a famous thesis written by Karl Marx – the young humanist not the grumpy old man of Capital that “people make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing”. Just so here – a touching and moving read.
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on 26 September 2013
This is a terrific, beautifully crafted book which tells the story of four generations born and living in what was East Germany; structured in a non-chronological narrative which initially can be puzzling but becomes more and more enlightening; the aim is to juxtapose the realities of the characters at the same ages as their parents or children, and it works.
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It's funny, if you really stop and think about it, that families and the internal relations between members, are pretty much the same 'round the world. And in all different times, too. Family dynamics never really change. In Eugen Ruge's new novel, "In Times of Fading Light", he tells the story of four generations of an East German family, beginning in 1950 and ending in 2001. Told in different chapters, by different family members, Ruge skips around from one year to another - back and forth in time - often telling the same vignette as seen from many sides. And, of course, the understanding of the vignette is different, based on that family member's experience and point of view.

Most of the story is set in East Berlin and surrounding areas, but the first and last parts are set in Mexico. The great-grandparents, Charlotte and Wilhelm, have been exiled from Germany during the WW2 years. Both are members of the German Communist party and are now thinking about returning from their lives in Mexico to live in the newly formed GDR. Charlotte's two sons by a first marriage had moved the opposite direction - into the Soviet Union - during the war. One son is dead and the other - a fervent Communist - has run afoul of the Stalin government and spent time in prison camps and "internal exile". He's finally released and returns to East Berlin in the mid-1950's with his son and his Russian wife (and eventually his mother-in-law).

Making a living and a life in the GDR was fairly easy at a certain level if you towed the Communist line. Wilhelm has fit into the GDR party and is rewarded - unnecessarily his own wife thinks - with a house and a living, and medals. Charlotte is the head of a government group of some sort and Kurt and his Russian wife, Irina, also prosper in the communist country. They all seem to have nice houses, lots of food - much of the story is devoted to the holiday meals they prepare - and lots of personal belongings. But as the years pass, and the Berlin Wall is erected in 1961 and then torn down in 1989, ideology changes and the lives of those who believe in that ideology also change. Children - Kurt and Irina's son, Alexander (Sasha) - and Alexander's son, Markus - are forced to find their way both economically and politically as the Wall falls and the GDR is combined with the West German state.

Eugen Ruge has written an excellent novel of a family and its times. All the characters are nuanced portrayals of people you might know. Their story - and their family - is one that all of us can relate to.

Ruge's novel was beautifully translated from the German to English by Anthea Bell. I've read other books Bell has translated and they all seem to sing in English.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 March 2015
The fact that the author, like his "anti-hero" Alexander, left Berlin just before the fall of the Wall, gives an authentic ring to this saga of four generations of a family living in East Germany under Communism and later unification. The chapters switch back and forth, adopting different viewpoints between 1952 and 2001. This allows us to see the characters' estimation of each other, and adds the intriguing spice of knowing how their lives will turn out, but not yet how or why.

Each chapter is like a short story - for me, the most perceptive and entertaining were the accounts of self-absorbed and semi-senile former Communist party activist Wilhelm's ninetieth birthday. He cold shoulders a couple whose son has defected to the West, unaware that his grandson has just done the same. In the eyes of his great-grandson Markus, whose desire to be an animal keeper is fated to remain unachieved, Wilhelm resembles a sharply observed pterodactyl, who on a generous impulse gives him his stuffed iguana.

Although I was fascinated by the theme and wanted to admire this book, it proved hard going. Perhaps owing to the translation, the style often seems leaden. Scenes are continually overloaded with mundane, wordy descriptions, which is doubly irritating since some of the major incidents are never fully explained. There is a tendency to recall events rather than enact them, although the shifting timeframe would readily permit this more dramatic approach. So, it is merely conveyed in the odd paragraph how Kurt ruined his own health and inadvertently brought about his brother Werner's death by sending him a mildly subversive letter which landed them both in a Soviet camp. Any sense of guilt that Kurt may feel, the traumatic effect on his mother Irina, are never explored in any depth.

I looked mostly in vain for the sense of menace combined with crass futility of life under the Stasi that one finds in, for example, the superb film, "The lives of others". The most sinister scene for me is when, returning to Berlin after a period of exile in Mexico, Charlotte becomes convinced that the plum job which has lured her back is a trick. The smoker in a dark leather coat who keeps directing probing glances her way is the first of several who will eventually lead her and Wilhelm into custody, signed confessions and ultimate disappearance. "Where were the people whose names are never mentioned anymore? Who not only didn't exist but had never existed?" Yet, when we next meet them, Charlotte and Wilhelm are comfortably employed in their promised posts, in a world of servants, string-pulling and relative luxury.

For me, a real sense of the grimness of East Germany rarely comes through, as in the powerful scene in which Kurt pursues his rebellious son Alexander through the rundown streets in the vain search for a restaurant that will serve a decent meal. "A subway train rattled by - but the subway trains here ran on an overhead line, while the suburban trains ran underground. The world turned upside down ........ passengers like cardboard cut-outs descending into hell."

A potentially brilliant novel which for me does not quite come off.
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on 3 January 2016
I looked forward to starting this book hoping to develop my knowledge of life in East Germany, I didn't. The book could have been written anywhere and it is depressing, slow and over convoluted in approach. The characters are not distinctive and are all a shade of grey. I struggled to finish it and only did in case it got better, it didn't.
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on 5 January 2014
In one way this novel is about what lies we tell one another to get through life, in another it is a portrait of a state essentially founded as a lie - the "German Democratic Republic".
But the novel is not an two-dimensional piece of anti-Communism, but a deeply humane portrait of a family and the choices both freely and forcibly made in the GDR. There are no tales of the Stasi - the only identified Stasi member appears briefly to demand reform (though at a time when the GDR has only weeks to live as even a semi-viable state). Instead we see four generations of a family shaped by first war and then "actually existing socialism" into a mess.
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on 29 June 2014
Eugen Ruge's IN ZEITEN DES ABNEHMENDEN LICHTS, created a bit of a literary sensation in Germany when this debut novel won the prominent German Book Prize 2011 for, what some German critics have called, the "Great DDR Buddenbrooks novel", a multi-generational family tale, set primarily in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Now translated into English as IN TIMES OF FADING LIGHT by the highly esteemed Anthea Bell, it will likely establish itself as an important fictional account of personal and political realities in East Germany from roughly 1952 to 2001. Personalizing the experiences of three generations of Germans, Ruge explores for the reader the changing and complicated interpersonal relationships that reflect back on the changing societal landscape from the early days of the newly formed GDR, passing through the dramatic events leading up to and following the fall of the Berlin Wall to the unified Germany. In fact, Ruge is very public about the fact that he has fictionalized of his own family's story.

In his novel Ruge demonstrates his own original language style and an unusual rhythm in which the chapters are organized. The events are told episodically and placed deliberately into the selected non-contiguous time-frames, moving backward and forward in the time continuum. The year 2001 provides an overall framework thus closing the circle, while one recurring precise date, October 1, 1989, is given special importance, both in terms of the central family event and developments in the GDR in general. The date is roughly a month prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, by October, each day more and more Germans are leaving the country via borders more porous than that between the two Germanys. A topic for discussion and concern at the dinner table?

Within the family, each generation has had to define its relationship to the State, its politics and deal with whatever past they had already experienced. The old patriarch, and committed communist, Wilhem, had returned (with his wife Charlotte) from exile in Mexico to the young GDR in the early 1950s; Charlotte's sons had gone east during the war and Kurt returns (with wife and child) after years in exile in remotest Russia. Their differing views and those of other members of the family, friends and colleagues are explored in varying ways throughout the different episodes. For me, Kurt's mother-in-law, the resolute Nadeshda Iwanovna, is the most endearing individual among them all; her sense of humor is more pronounced than that of any other.

The changing time-frames and with them each episode concentrating on one or two members of the clan is initially somewhat confusing. But a quick look at the table of content reveals the rather clever and useful order of the chapters. Ruge is very careful not to overload the reader with political detail or societal intricacies staying closely within the family chronicle. Readers interested in the broader picture are well advised to consult other resources. Yet, while focusing on the individuals, the episodes are nonetheless written from the perspective of an outsider, an omniscient narrator. This places the reader at a certain distance from the protagonists. We don't see the world through their eyes; we observe their actions and interactions and rarely get a glimpse into their mind. Hiding a person's inner truths was of course a requirement during the days of the GDR...

Finally, I have admit that I am not in the best position to assess the impact of Ruge's novel and how a reader with none or little familiarity with the subject matter will relate to it. While my own experiences, directly and indirectly, reflect in many ways the realities as Ruge describes them realistically, and I find the book well written, I would not want to compare it with Thomas Mann's BUDDENBROOKS or Gunter Grass's novel and relevant to the issues here, TOO FAR AFIELD. [Friederike Knabe]
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on 5 November 2014
This novel follows the Umnitzer family, viewing life through the eyes of different family members.

This is not a feel good book, and the details of their life are potentially mundane and boring. However, these details underline the reality of life not only in the GDR, but generally such as ageing parents and the baggage of previous relationships. The book gradually pulls you in almost as though you are an extra family member helplessly watching.

Having read many non-fiction books on the GDR I feel it captures well the fossilisation of everyday life in the GDR and the challenges of unification.

I'd recommend very much reading The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker
by Mary Fulbrook for further insight into East German life
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It's funny, if you really stop and think about it, that families and the internal relations between members, are pretty much the same 'round the world. And in all different times, too. Family dynamics never really change. In Eugen Ruge's new novel, "In Times of Fading Light", he tells the story of four generations of an East German family, beginning in 1950 and ending in 2001. Told in different chapters, by different family members, Ruge skips around from one year to another - back and forth in time - often telling the same vignette as seen from many sides. And, of course, the understanding of the vignette is different, based on that family member's experience and point of view.

Most of the story is set in East Berlin and surrounding areas, but the first and last parts are set in Mexico. The great-grandparents, Charlotte and Wilhelm, have been exiled from Germany during the WW2 years. Both are members of the German Communist party and are now thinking about returning from their lives in Mexico to live in the newly formed GDR. Charlotte's two sons by a first marriage had moved the opposite direction - into the Soviet Union - during the war. One son is dead and the other - a fervent Communist - has run afoul of the Stalin government and spent time in prison camps and "internal exile". He's finally released and returns to East Berlin in the mid-1950's with his son and his Russian wife (and eventually his mother-in-law).

Making a living and a life in the GDR was fairly easy at a certain level if you towed the Communist line. Wilhelm has fit into the GDR party and is rewarded - unnecessarily his own wife thinks - with a house and a living, and medals. Charlotte is the head of a government group of some sort and Kurt and his Russian wife, Irina, also prosper in the communist country. They all seem to have nice houses, lots of food - much of the story is devoted to the holiday meals they prepare - and lots of personal belongings. But as the years pass, and the Berlin Wall is erected in 1961 and then torn down in 1989, ideology changes and the lives of those who believe in that ideology also change. Children - Kurt and Irina's son, Alexander (Sasha) - and Alexander's son, Markus - are forced to find their way both economically and politically as the Wall falls and the GDR is combined with the West German state.

Eugen Ruge has written an excellent novel of a family and its times. All the characters are nuanced portrayals of people you might know. Their story - and their family - is one that all of us can relate to.

Ruge's novel was beautifully translated from the German to English by Anthea Bell. I've read other books Bell has translated and they all seem to sing in English.
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