The Quest for Christa T is an attempt to reconstruct the life of a woman whose nature defied definition and classification; a woman whose spirit was at complete odds with a society that viewed conformity as necessary to its survival. It’s a fascinating portrait of a East German woman in the years from her childhood at the end of World War 2 until her early death in a 1960s Communist state about to be curtailed behind the Berlin wall. It’s a portrait built by her friend from personal memory supplemented by details taken from Christa T’s letters, poems and diaries and conversations with people who may or may not have actually existed (such is the elusive nature of this book that it’s often hard to separate reality from imagination).
The picture of Christa T isn’t revealed in a linear fashion but through disconnected fragments with only a vague idea as to the time period in which particular episodes occurred. As the narrator rummages through a box of papers left behind by Christa T, we get glimpses of the dead woman; first as a child and then as a thirty-five year mother who lies dying from leukaemia. The narrative then reconstructs the intervening years, depicting Christa T’s life as a student in Leipzig and as a teacher. At every stage it’s apparent that this is a woman destined always to be different; to be special though quite what makes her so is never clear. She’s a drifter, an outsider, a person on the fringe; an individual whose passion for constant change and renewal alienates her from her contemporaries and from the ethos of the new communist order. While others adjust to this new regime, and put aside their personal beliefs, she recognises that this is a society for “factual people” and “up and doing people” not dreamers like herself.
What makes this novel frustrating is how much is not revealed about Christa T. The narrator acknowledges as much in the opening chapter of the novel. Her quest is to protect the memory of her friend, to prevent her being forgotten. And so she uses the letters and other materials to conjure up her friend at will, to see her walk or play on the beach or blow an imaginary trumpet. But even then she recognises that what she remembers is not the truth
…all the time I know that it’s a film of shadows being run off the reel, a film that was once projected in the real light of cities, landscapes, living rooms.
Despite her knowledge that the very act of writing may falsify the nature of her friend, the narrator often becomes angry when she feels the truth is being withheld from her. At one stage, as she looks through the notebooks Christa has left behind the narrator she rails against her friend because she cannot understand the significance of a list of book titles.
I’ve read the titles once more. What does it all mean? Try as I might, I can’t figure out what’s at the back of these titles. My anger, which was complicated, was the healthy fury of a reader bereft of a promised story. And even if I was the only person who’d like to know what it means …. shouldn’t she at least have shown consideration for me? ….
The anger and frustration is understandable. Here is a woman conscious that she bears the legacy of her friend’s life and determined to do it justice. She succeeds to some extent. I certainly felt by the end that I’d been introduced to a remarkable woman living through a difficult period in history. But I was also left with a perplexing series of images and a feeling there is so much more yet to discover.
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