“When he was six years old, he had been taught that compassion was the only quality of any consequence, and tonight he had tied a knot along the smooth train of his life, and it would trail behind him, snagging over rough ground, staring back at him when he stopped to look, no matter how far he tried to pay it out.”
Let Us Be True, by Alex Christofi, is a love story – not a romance but rather a story of survival and its toll. The protagonist is Ralf who meets the beautiful Elsa in a run-down Parisian bar and embarks on an affair.
Ralf was born in Hamburg, the son of Emil – an academic who researched eugenics. Ralf and his mother fled to London as Hitler rose to power.
Elsa, a child of loyal Nazi sympathisers living in Berlin, carved out a life for herself in the aftermath of the conflict. She now seeks excitement but is loath to risk all she has achieved, even for love.
“They had all been prepared to suffer and be ruthless in service of a grand vision of the future, without seeing that all one is left with, in the end, is the past.”
The couple’s backstories provide insight into the life of ordinary Germans between the world wars. Given current events this makes for sobering reading. Emil’s story in particular moved me – a man who produced scientific evidence that nobody was willing to hear.
After serving with the British in the war, Ralf stayed in Paris rather than return to his mother in London. She wished for him to find a wife and raise a family, not appreciating how displaced he felt. In Paris he befriended Fouad, an Algerian Muslim suffering discrimination that the war should have proved indefensible. Fouad’s story is just one tragedy of many told here.
“We may struggle one way but we are all being dragged another by our heritage, by history.”
Ralf falls passionately in love with Elsa but she tells him little of her history or circumstances. When he surreptitiously follows her and discovers the truth it comes at a cost. He descends into a destructive spiral, becoming involved in student agitation, eventually emerging to return to London following the death of his mother.
The writing is poetic in its stark beauty, the phraseology adept and poignant, evoking a past that has been lived, futures lost. The denouement rises from a settling tenebrosity whilst avoiding compromising the preceding character development. Life goes on.
An affecting narrative of studied elegance that seduces the reader despite its dark core. This, his second book, places the author amongst those whose trajectory I will now closely follow. Literature lovers, you want to read this book.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.