The Self-effacing Eugen Ruge
“The best definition of man is a creature who walks on two legs and is ungrateful.” Said Dostoyevsky. This will, surely, be a quote familiar to Eugen Ruge. He was, after all, born in Russia. He’s an expert on Russian literature. And a translator of Chekov. But was Dostoyevsky right? Possibly not. Because I have, in recent weeks, been most surprised by the number of people who’ve told me that they’re dankbar – grateful. Dankbar that they’ve read it, or dankbar that I recommended it to them: the book. By Eugen Ruge – my latest guest on Talking Germany.
It’s a family saga – really, in many ways, the story of his own family. And he uses this story to create a powerful panorama of people and society in the former East Germany – where he grew up. It’s acerbic but generous, warm but analytic, desperately serious and desperately funny – all at the same time. In short: it’s fabulous. But when I ask Eugen Ruge to sign my copy of the book, he first looks a little surprised, then back over his shoulder, as if it wasn’t him I’d asked at all, before apologizing: “Sorry, my signature isn’t up to much.” Which is something of a signature statement.
Eugen Ruge’s life story is so fascinating that it makes for great television. But just chatting isn’t necessarily easy. He’s very reluctant to come out with his views. To be pinned down. What, I ask him, does he make of the person who is surely the most famous East German in world history? “Weeeeelllllllll ….” We’re talking Angela Merkel and he’s obviously not a fan – but he’s not going to say so in so many words. Still it becomes clear that despite his book’s incisive critique of all that communism stood for, Eugen Ruge is no friend of capitalism. And he clearly views Germany’s chancellor as part of the problem.
“Democracy is in danger because of the collusion of the politicians, and political parties, with big money,” he tells me. It’s amazing how many people say that here in Germany these days. “Politicians are not accessible enough. There’s too little transparency.” It’s amazing how many people say that, too. I personally don’t entirely agree. But I listen hard. And I begin to wonder whether the title of Eugen Ruge’s book really only applies to his family, the country of his birth, and the crumbling of communism. Or whether it doesn’t also encompass the crumbling of capitalism: In Times of Fading Light.
DateJune 10, 2012