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Book review: In Times of Fading Light, By Eugen Ruge, trans. Anthea Bell

A bewitching collage of loves and sorrows brings the lost East Germany back to life

Russian pelmeni dumplings, a Mexican song from the 1940s, cucumbers pickled in the style of the Ural mountains, ships that carry two young brothers to Moscow and return with a glamorous grandmother, a grandfather figure who is "something terribly important", a train journey with tea-glasses painted with the Kremlin and a tiny circling Sputnik, tales of white nights and the howling of wolves in the forest, a best friend who has left for the West, rides in a blue Trabant, a stuffed iguana, a mother whose German is heavily accented but who is very brave and knows the sound of tanks, the bright foliage of the birches in the autumn which make Baba Nadya both happy and sad as she remembers the potato harvest will now be over in Slava, and that it is now "inexorably…the time of fading light": all this is part of Alexander's bewildering and bewitching childhood collage.

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In Eugen Ruge's novel, which won the German Book Prize, it is now 2011. Having received his own medical blow, Alexander leaves his ailing father's home in a typical post-Wall former East German street – "cobblestones, with bumps and dents where tree roots had risen. Rotting fences" - for a journey into the past: to Mexico, where his father's parents had lived in exile through the war, committed Communists. Meanwhile, Charlotte's two sons were in Stalin's Russia. Only one, Kurt, his father, would return from the gulag, sentenced there to "eternal exile" for a teenage throwaway comment.

Alexander hopes to make sense of the "half-truths" of family lore and to make peace with his own "never quite belonging". He saw the history taught by Kurt, a professor at East Berlin's university, become as questionable as many of the other foundations of his youth. However, he questioned too the assumed superiority of all things in that imagined West, and the complexities of democracy beyond the GDR, where Party leaders and functionaries manipulated as a tool the once-beautiful German language.

With a deceptively unfussy narrative style, rich in dialogue and some tremendous set-piece monologues, Ruge's "story of a family" delivers a hugely informative, entertaining and thought-provoking panoramic view of Communism in Germany. It runs from the 1920s – including the disastrous United Front policy that saw Communists siding in rhetoric with the National Socialists against the Social Democrats – to the horrors of Stalinism, the jostling for power in the bleak ruins of post-war Germany, and the coming of perestroika and new hopes for "greater democracy" under Gorbachev, while others fear a "liquidation of the GDR". There is much detail to astound in Anthea Bell's impeccable translation, which captures all the charm of the original.

Transience, memory, the sweet sadness of nostalgia, and the human ability to adapt are Ruge's themes. He regards three generations' worth of experience with vivacity and humour, and the clarity of one aware of his own ticking clock. His longing for a country with "no need of heroes" is intact, and soothed by "the indifferent, distant roar of the sea".