Photograph: Tobias Bohm

In the twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s capital has seen an explosion of creative output. Some of the artists who call the city home have searched the often-muted history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for strands of national, familial, and personal identity. Among these is Eugen Ruge, whose debut novel In Times of Fading Light won the 2011 German Book Prize and has become one of the most prominent literary works about the GDR released after its demise.

In Times of Fading Light, which has just been released in the United States in paperback, is told from the perspectives of seven members of the semi-autobiographical Umnitzer family, from card-carrying Communist Party official Wilhelm to his grandson Alexander who, like Ruge himself, leaves in the late ’80s, fed up. Alexander, the prodigal son, tries, in the wake of his own cancer diagnosis, to make peace with a family and a country he left behind.The book follows these characters from 1952 to 2001, leaps back and forth across decades and the Atlantic Ocean. Ruge eschews a traditional linear narrative in favor of individual moments—family dinners, winter walks in Berlin, days in distant Mexico. These snapshots are microcosms that contain the whole.

Each of Ruge’s characters stands in a distinct relationship to communism and the Wall, but instead of engaging in a polemical debate, he extends compassion to each of them, “being with them and going with them,” he told me, as the world changes around them. It is an uncommonly vivid, many-sided portrait of life in the GDR and of the currents and commitments that bound people to the communist ideal or divided them from it.

I spoke with Ruge about his own experiences in the GDR, his writing, and the creative life in post-Wall Berlin. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.

—John Shakespear

John Shakespear: What is the “fading light” referred to in the title of your novel, In Times of Fading Light?

Eugen Ruge: In Times of Fading Light is about the demise of an East German family, and not only of a family, but of country, of a system, and of an idea. The family is firmly communist, at least at the beginning of the story, but from generation to generation the belief in communism, in the communist utopia, vanishes more and more: the light is fading. The novel covers almost fifty years, and it takes place chiefly in the GDR, but also follows the family to Mexico and the Soviet Union.

JS: The action in the novel moves back and forth across those fifty years. Why did you choose this nonlinear, nontraditional timeline?

ER: First, I have to say that this book, if you compare it with most of my plays, is relatively traditional. Maybe because I really wanted to tell a big story, and there was simply a lot of stuff to transport and to tell. It’s a real story and there are no postmodern experiments in it, except maybe the non-chronological way I told it and shared the perspectives of the different characters. I stayed very close to every character, which is maybe not Tolstoy-like, not Thomas-Mann-like.

I thought a lot about form, about how to organize this stuff. I knew from the beginning that I could not tell the whole story but could only tell it spot-like. I could highlight some events from this family’s history, and I would have to choose or invent certain critical and important moments.

I always had the feeling that the linear approach was not fitting for this thing. If I’m telling it linearly, from the beginning to the end, I’m pretending as if I can manage it all, as if it’s simple for me to deal with this stuff. But the thing is not simple, and I’m not ready with all of this, I’m not like Thomas Mann, who knows what every one of his characters is thinking, doing, and feeling—it’s different. I knew that I had to choose another way to structure all this stuff, and I thought only about the structure for almost a year, just thinking about which order the stories should appear in.

JS: A nonlinear approach felt more honest to you?

ER: Yes, a nonlinear approach was more honest. It simply expressed my relationship to this history.

JS: You’ve written extensively for the theater. Did writing plays help you to plan and write the novel? Some of the scenes are redolent of the stage, with a small cast of characters in small, confined spaces.

ER: I learned to write dialogue from theater. Dialogue is not easy, of course, because it is not “one person says something and the other person answers.” Learning to write dialogue means understanding how people talk. They do not talk by exchanging content; there is always meaning underneath the words they say, and you have to learn this if you’re writing for the theater.

Besides that, there are three main things I learned. One was how to go into a character’s perspective and keep it. I learned that as a theater writer, and I used it in the book. The second thing is not connected with theater in general but connected with the theater of Chekhov. Chekhov, if you remember, for example, Three Sisters, works like this—his plays have big gaps between the scenes, big gaps of years. Something happens, you miss some years, and then you have another spotlight on what happens in the house with the three sisters. This was a principle I learned by translating Chekhov.

The third thing I learned is not to make philosophy instead of writing what is going on. As a theater writer, I learned to keep very close to the action, to what is really happening. In In Times of Fading Light there is little philosophy from the side of the writer. The characters may philosophize, but from the side of the writer there is almost nothing. I do not tell about those characters; instead, I’m almost being with them, and going with them, being a companion to them while they are doing something, concentrating on their actions. Maybe this is not so surprising for an American writer; maybe there is more philosophy in German literature than in American literature.

Every generation the belief in the communist utopia vanishes more and more: the light is fading.

JS: You’ve studied and taught mathematics, made documentaries, translated for broadcasters and theaters, and directed plays. Has writing been a constant throughout your varied life and career?

ER: Yes, I would say it appeared very early. I remember, for example, one episode in kindergarten, when the teacher asked me what profession my father had, and I was very small, maybe four years old, and I said I didn’t know, actually, what my father’s profession was. He was a historian—that was too complicated for me. I only knew that he sat all day at the typewriter and wrote books. I told her, the teacher, that my father sits all day at the typewriter and writes books, and she said, with a tone of great appreciation: oh, he is a writer! That was the first time that I understood that a writer must be something very honorable. Maybe that was one of the moments that influenced me along the way.

JS: Did you share your work with your father and talk about what each of you was writing?

ER: Yes, I did, at least my first attempts to write something like a novel. That was very early, and it was terrible, I think, what I wrote. I talked with him, and he was always a good critic, in the sense that he tried not to destroy and reject everything but to criticize more or less fairly. But this concerns only my first attempts. Later, when I started writing theater seriously, after quitting my job as a mathematician, I did not share my work with him. One reason was that I was in the West, and he was still in the East. The wall had already fallen, but our connections were not so close at that time. The other was that he did not understand my approach to literature, and to theater especially. He had a very traditional view of literature, and what I did at this time was very modern, even postmodern, and he did not appreciate it and did not accept it as literature.

His understanding of literature reached the level, let’s say, of Goethe, his prose and his lyrics, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, and maybe Dostoyevsky. He did not really appreciate modern literature.

JS: Growing up in the GDR, what sorts of art and literature were you exposed to in school?

ER: We read some of the German classics. Goethe, for example, was part of the school program, and also Russian writers, who were not bad of course—Mikhail Sholokhov, for example.

If you read something in school, you oppose it. But there were a lot of books in the GDR that were not spoken about in school. A lot of books were printed in the GDR; we had Western writers like Max Frisch, Günter Grass, Siegfried Lenz, all those. One writer whom I liked very much was Martin Walser. We had a lot of West German writers, but we had international writers too. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and other books by Marquez, and American writers too. Moreover, even books that were not printed in the GDR, and even those books which were not even allowed in the GDR, you could get somehow. For example, I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I think my father gave it to me.

I think, actually, that if I’m talking with my friends from Western Germany, the difference as regards literature is not so big. We read more or less the same things, or at least there is a common core, or a common foundation of literature that both Western and Eastern German people read. It depended more on which class people grew up in, who their parents were. This was maybe the bigger difference—if a person grew up in the working class or if their parents were intellectuals, and not so much if they grew up in the West or the East.

I should add one thing: if you’re asking me today, I’ll say that I read more or less the same literature as my friends who grew up in West Germany, but if you had asked me twenty-five years ago, I wouldn’t have answered that way because we always had the feeling that we were cut off from the world’s culture because of the wall. Of course, this cut-off was not so hard as we thought, but this I understand only now. At that time there was always a desire to take part in the world’s culture, and also to go to India and, I don’t know, smoke hashish, for example, and do all the things that were connected with this youth culture. The desire in those days was very strong.

JS: I suppose this is reflected in the novel, when Alexander is a young man in the GDR, he longs to see Rolling Stones concerts and participate in antiwar demonstrations.

ER: Yes, of course. Actually, you have to say that the GDR was simply slower than the West, because in the West, the parents, teachers, and adults at a certain time were also against all this stuff, against the youth culture and the music. In the GDR it was a little bit later, and it was a state thing. In school, for example, it was forbidden to wear Rolling Stones T-shirts, it was forbidden to listen to western radio stations, and so on. At home it depended on the parents. I remember one guy whose father was not only a Party member but what was a so-called 100 percent Party member, so he forbade his son to hear western music, at least for some years. But, my companions, everybody had a tape. We had no LPs, but we recorded western music like the Stones and the Beatles and so on, so we had access in some way to that, but we could not go to concerts because we were not allowed to leave the GDR in the direction of the West.

So that was a problem, I would say. It was a serious, serious problem not to have been to Woodstock, not to have seen Jimi Hendrix. You could, of course, live an alternative way of life, and later we even had our own rock and roll bands, but still we had the feeling that this culture was taking place chiefly in the West, and we had only a poor copy of it.

JS: Was that problem still on your mind when you moved to West Germany in the ’80s?

ER: Yes. At that time, when I left the GDR, there were maybe two reasons. First, I had the feeling that real life was taking place outside the GDR. The GDR seemed to me very gray and very boring. The second thing was that there was stagnation, that the GDR did not move anymore. I had the feeling that so-called socialism in the GDR had come to an end, not in the sense that in the next year the whole thing would crash, but in the sense that in the next decade or next two decades, it would come to a level of development similar to China, let’s say, meaning that the economy would change in the direction of a market economy. I felt that, because the West was very close, travelling, freedom of movement, and democracy would eventually become attainable. However, twenty or thirty years, while it’s a short period in world history, is a long time in a person’s life, and I did not want to wait until the GDR was more similar to West Germany, so I decided to leave, to have this life now and not thirty years later.

JS: Did it surprise you when the Wall fell?

ER: It did. I personally know nobody whom it did not surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me so much, but it did. The wall was built when I was maybe six years old, or seven years old, so I lived my whole early life imagining that the Wall not only exists but would exist forever. Today, looking back, I know that the wall was only there for twenty-eight years, and now it’s only twenty-five years since it vanished, so historically it was a really, really small period, but at that time it was almost unimaginable that it would disappear.

JS: When you moved to the West, did you find a community of writers and artists to work with?

ER: No, I wouldn’t say so. I found friends very quickly. I would say that I’m a person who tends to have few friends, two or three people, and not a person who tends to live in communities, so if I had lived in the West before, I probably wouldn’t have lived in hippie communities. Maybe it’s simply my character. I would say I found friends and I had contacts, and this was very nice, and much easier than I had imagined before, but I would not say that I was in contact with a community of artists and writers.

JS: In the last twenty-five years, Berlin has gained a reputation as an international hub for the arts and for youth culture in particular. Were you conscious of this emerging arts mecca during the ’90s?

ER: Until ’95, I was living in western Germany, almost on the border with Holland. When I came back to Berlin in ’95, there were a lot of changes, there was a whole new youth culture, but I would say that it was already not my youth culture, because when I came back I was already forty, forty-one years old, so I had the impression that there was something new, and maybe even a little alien and strange, a culture that I did not take part in because I simply was not of the right age to take part in such a youth culture.

JS: You’ve spoken about wanting to preserve history in your art. Do you find that sense of history lacking among some of Berlin’s younger artists?

ER: Yes, of course, but this is the nature of young art, I think. Young people don’t have a long past yet, they do not have much history to tell, and their minds are not so full of memories. But I don’t know how it will be in twenty or thirty years. Probably people who are young today will be aware of the fact that they have a history and a family, although the structure of the family is going through changes at the moment. I don’t know what will be, but to make it short, yes, young artists don’t care as much about history, and I think it’s important to care about that, because it’s a question of your identity. In some ways, you consist of your history, your past. I don’t know if you can say this in English, but—you are your past, what else?

JS: Markus is the only character in In Times of Fading Light who comes of age as the Wall falls and grows up with these young artists of the ’90s. You’ve described Markus as a tragic figure because he is cut off from the past.

ER: Yes, he is cut off from his family, and from his family’s history, and from the past.

You are your past, what else?

JS: Markus doesn’t receive a clear political and social orientation from his teachers or his family. Do you think this state of disorientation persists in Germany today?

ER: I don’t know if this sort of disorientation persists. There are, of course, still young people who are very similar to Markus, who are disorientated like him, but in general I wouldn’t say that it persists because this period is closed. Now we have the period of globalization, we have the period of so-called social media, of the digital revolution, which seems to touch many young people and influence them in a very strong way. Maybe you can also call this a kind of disorientation, but it’s very different from what happens to Markus.

JS: Do you think that the social, political disorientation around the time of the fall of the wall was a source of art and writing?

ER: I’m sure there have been many artists and writers who were young at the time who have written about this period and sense of disorientation. There is, for example, a young woman named Jana Hensel, who wrote Zonenkinder, which means GDR Children.

JS: Did the meeting of East and West Germany have something to do with the Berlin’s burst of creativity in Berlin in the ‘90s, or is that a romantic notion?

ER: I don’t know—if you look at the German Book Prize, for example, there were a lot of East German writers who were awarded this most important award, so there have been a lot of successful books by East German writers. Indeed, East Germany, and the experience of East German people, and the experience of the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the system, is a big source of creativity and stories. The other thing was the rapid changes in Berlin in a very short period. People from all over the world, not just West Germany, came to the open spaces which were suddenly left in East Berlin—open spaces mentally, but also open spaces in the sense of houses, of old factories, of buildings that were abandoned there. In the first years after the wall fell, there were a lot of creative young people. Of course, you have to say that not every young person who is creative and who feels like an artist is an artist. So there was a lot of movement, of course, and a big scene, and there still is. It has changed, but there is still a big scene and a lot of creative people—or at least people who think of themselves as creative.

JS: Did you have much contact with this culture surrounding the open spaces, these factories and abandoned homes?

ER: Not very intensively. Yesterday, I was reading about Picasso, who fled the scene [in Paris] in order to work, in the end, because, of course, in such circumstances, the scene seems very interesting, but if you really want to work, you have to get away and sit down and work.

I have never belonged to any scene. In the end, for most of my creative life, I have been alone. At the moment I’m sitting in a former monastery. I have a stipend here from the Evangelic Academy—from the church. I’m looking for a place where there are few distractions. I’m running every day, ten kilometers or fifteen, and then I sit down at the desk and try to make something.

JS: Could you tell me a bit about your second novel, Cabo de Gata?

ER: On the surface, it’s a sort of road-movie book—it describes a journey, but more and more this journey turns into an inner journey. On the surface, not very much happens, and maybe this is the theme, this is what the book is about: the question of living intensely. In which situations do we feel we are living intensely? For the main character in the book, it’s like this: on the surface almost nothing happens, but in spite of that he has a lot of experiences. We all want to live very intensely, and mostly people try to live by doing a lot of things at once, but this guy is leaving Germany for the South of Spain, for a sort of desert. Not much happens, but a lot happens for him.

Editor’s note: an English translation of Cabo de Gata is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2016.