I have found The Quest for Christa T a difficult book to review, it’s a delicately nuanced, complex novel, and the writing is very beautiful. It is a multi-layered novel, at times it is really quite difficult, but the reader is rewarded for their concentration. Ultimately I was left with a tantalising jumble of images; village school rooms, German countryside, sick rooms and trains.
Christa Wolf was one of the best known novelists to emerge from East Germany. Born in 1929 Wolf went on to be awarded a host of international awards throughout her writing career, The Quest for Christa T. was her second published novel.
“Then she began to blow, or to shout, there’s no proper word for it. It was this I reminded her of, or wanted to, in my last letter, but she wasn’t reading any more letters, she was dying. She was always tall, and thin, until the last years, after she’d had the children. So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-air along the curb, and suddenly she put a rolled up newspaper to her mouth and let go with her shout: HOOOHAAHOOO –something like that. She blew her trumpet and the off duty sergeants and corporals of the local defense corps stopped and stared and shook their heads at her. Well, she’s cuckoo, that’s for sure. Now you see what she can be like, one of the other girls said to me.”
Our unnamed narrator becomes somewhat fascinated and inexplicably drawn to Christa T. when they are both still school girls. In the street one day, toward the end of the Second World War, Christa T. puts a rolled up newspaper to her mouth, trumpet like – and yells through it – it is an action which seems to speak particularly of Christa T’s spirit, her independence and slight daring. For our narrator this moment – one she returns to again and again in retrospect – heralds the start of their friendship, and ultimately the “quest” to understand Christa. This friendship is interrupted when Christa’s family leave the area during an evacuation in 1945. It is seven years before our narrator sees Christa again in a university classroom.
Christa’s story is told in retrospect, the structure of this novel is non-linear, and the story of the seven missing years and those that follow weave in and out of each other. In a sense, Christa’s story is a simple enough one, toward the end of the war two young girls meet, are separated, meet again some years later, living in a part of Germany under soviet control. Christa attends university, works as a village school teacher, has men fall in love with her, eventually she marries has children, moves to a new home, and dies of Leukaemia when only in her thirties. Yet there is something quite different in the telling of this story, part of which is told by our narrator through the scraps of words left behind, the notes, stories and letters, left behind by Christa, and examined and quoted by her friend as she tries to understand Christa now that she is gone.
“The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of her that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T. – that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive colour on things”
Yet Christa T. remains really rather elusive, throughout this brilliant novel, she is something of a shadow, someone who is both fascinating while remaining difficult to get a handle on. As our narrator moves back and forth telling the story of herself and Christa in her own disjointed fashion, we catch glimpses of the people, places and events in a life cut tragically short. This is the story of a search for the truth of a person, but it also helps to remind us of the difficult, new world of East Germany that the author herself was living in. The Quest for Christa T. however isn’t an obviously political novel, although it is tempting to look for clues to the author’s own political leanings, a woman who watched by the Stasi for thirty years, actually opposed the reunification of Germany.
The narrative is often obscure – for example in the references to the times in which these women live – Christa and her husband visit a cousin on the “other side”. Initially both women appear happy with their way of life, while embracing the new order of their world; they seem to reject the values of the west. Yet the book also speaks of the dangers of totalitarianism – as Christa T. appears to be destroyed; her desire for the new home by the lake that she and her husband are building at odds with the Soviet ideal.
This novel is about a friendship, but more than that it is about the truth, the search for truth, and memory and how memory can sometimes let us down. Sometimes we have to readjust our memories of people in what we learn of them later, memory can be false or inaccurate.
I have already said that the writing is beautiful, and it is, and hats off to the translator of this novel – whose poetic, elusive prose suits perfectly the unique narrative. There were moments when the elusive, obscurity of the novel frustrated me a little (I am sure this is a novel which is improved upon with subsequent reading) – but I think the reader has to just go with it, allow the language and the images to envelop you without trying too hard to work out what exactly is going on.