The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Alas, I haven’t managed to read as many books as I wished for German Reading Month, thanks to coming down with the dreaded lurgy (i.e. the worst head cold I’ve had in years followed by sinusitis and a chest infection).  It goes without saying, also, that the book I ended up reading wasn’t the one I planned…. 🙂 But I *have* wanted to read Christa Wolf for a long time, and so this seemed the perfect time to pull “The Quest for Christa T.” out from my Virago shelves.

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Wolf was an East German writer about whom Wikipedia says: “Christa Wolf (née Ihlenfeld; 18 March 1929, Landsberg an der Warthe – 1 December 2011, Berlin) was a German literary critic, novelist, and essayist. She was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany. Wolf received the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1963, the Georg Büchner Prize in 1980, and the Schiller Memorial Prize in 1983, the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis in 1987, as well as other national and international awards. After the German reunification, Wolf received further awards: in 1999 she was awarded the Elisabeth Langgässer Prize and the Nelly Sachs Literature Prize, and Wolf became the first recipient of the Deutscher Bücherpreis (German Book Prize) in 2002 for her lifetime achievement. In 2010, Wolf was awarded the Großer Literaturpreis der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste.”

That’s an awful lot of awards; but Wolf was also the subject of controversy, for her left-wing views after German reunification, and also during the Cold War for her criticism of the GDR ruling regime. I’ve tried to start her books before, and struggled – maybe a case of the right book at the wrong time, because this time reading Christa Wolf was a joy.

On the surface, and from the blurb, the tale is a simple one: Christa T.’s friend tells the story of their friendship, her life and her death. They met in school at the tail-end of the Second World War, both ended up in the portion of Germany which ended up under Soviet control, met again, went to University, worked, married, had families, and then Christa died young. That in itself is movingly told, but is a complete simplification, because there is layer upon layer of meaning in “The Quest for Christa T.” and it’s wonderfully constructed.

Firstly, there is the way of telling. The narrator, Christa T.’s friend, is elliptical and elusive, much as is Christa herself. She tells the tale at her own pace, often slipping backwards and forwards in time; and there are encounters with other friends and colleagues which you’re never quite sure have actually taken place. She has access to her friend’s papers, handed over by her widower, Justus, and these reveal much about Christa as well as throwing up more questions. This leads the narrator to constantly question what is reality and what is the real Christa, so much so that by the end we seem to be slipping from reality to imagination without even noticing it.

The paths we really took are overlaid with paths we did not take. I can now hear words that we never spoke.

What is pertinent here is the era in which the girls grew up to become women. They experienced the end of the War, fleeing the oncoming Russian soldiers, and we never really find out how they survived. But they grow up in an increasingly totalitarian regime and reading between the lines, studying the sometimes a little obscure narrative, you realise that they have to be careful what they say or do as every action can be misinterpreted. And even the narrator has to be careful telling her tale here – the book was first published in 1968, behind the Iron Curtain and during the Cold War – and so her criticisms of the regime have to be carefully made.

For the new world that we were making and making unassailable – even if it meant building ourselves into the foundations of it – that world really did exist. It exists, and not only in our heads; and that period was for us the beginning of it. But whatever happened or will happen to that new world is and remains our affair. Among the alternatives offered there isn’t a single one that’s worth a nod in its direction…

Initially, the girls are committed and enthusiastic about the new way of life; even rejecting the values of the West on a rare visit to Justus’s cousin on the Other Side, despite the obvious differences in their material standards. And even late on in the book, when it has become obvious that the girls’ Utopian dreams have failed, they are uncomfortable with the concept of actually owning a house of their own – “all property is theft?” You could almost dig deeper and say that Christa T. herself represents the new regime and that it’s the failure of this world that causes her death – I wouldn’t be surprised if a writer as complex as Wolf intended that level of meaning.

Sometimes they travel far, sometimes ‘druben’ – over there. The trip there is unusual enough to make your heart beat faster: over there is where the opposite ideas for living are produced, where everything is the reverse – people, things, and thoughts; that’s the real reason why you feel uneasy when you turn the next corner, full of weird expectations, to find always only the same smiling traffic policeman. But one might just as easily catch oneself napping: this is a twofold country and, what’s more, everyone in it is twofold, one part possibility and the other its refutal. One gets rid of the feeling of confusion at times by doing something violent. She spits on the memorial to ‘the stolen territories in the East.’ Memory’s colour is greenish-gold, it mustn’t go black, mustn’t go dry: black is the colour of guilt. She spits on this black stone.

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All the way through the book, as you look for the meanings, it is the things unsaid or implied that come across powerfully. The language is beautifully poetic and evocative, bringing alive vividly the lives of Christa T. and her friend, so that even if the narrator is unsure if she has really caught and portrayed her friend’s character, the reader can see them both quite clearly – and it is a tale of two people, not just the one named in the title.

The translator, Christopher Middleton, is a poet himself and his wonderful work here shines.

At night she has dreams. She glides into sleep as if descending in a cage to the sea floor, only the water becomes brighter, not darker, and finally bright as day, like liquid air. One gives a kick and is floating. It’s too beautiful to be sleep. She decides, while still asleep: I’m not sleeping. To float like this isn’t surprising if one has wanted it for so long.

The quest for Christa T. is in the end a quest for truth, full of phrases and sentences that pull you up with their brilliance. The narrator questions her memories, reminding us what fragile things they are, easily confused and falsified. Whilst trying to pin down the life of her friend, fix her for future generations to understand, in many ways she tells the story of the life of any woman living through those times. Wolf’s compelling book is a beautiful, lyrical exploration of existence which in many ways defies description; it would simply be better if you went and read it yourself! Christa Wolf was a remarkable and individual writer and I really can’t wait to explore more of her work.

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