The Quest for Christa T. is an attempt to capture the quality of a life—the life of an ordinary, unheroic woman. Christa T. is an adolescent as World War II ends; she is educated, teaches, marries, has children, and dies young from leukemia in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) of the 1950’s and the 1960’s. The unnamed narrator’s quest in writing the biography of Christa T. encompasses her own memories of her friend; Christa T.’s diaries, letters, poetry, and occasional writings; the memories of Christa T.’s family; imagined reconstructions of incidents; and interviews with friends. As much as the book purports to be a quest for Christa T., it is also a quest for the way to compose such a memoir and how to find a justification for its existence.
In the “prelude” to the book, the narrator expresses her need to find some way to preserve the life of Christa T., a year after her death. Having read her friend’s papers, she dismisses her own memory as deceptive; she fears the illusory quality of recollection but feels obliged to rescue Christa T. from oblivion. She realizes that “the compulsion to make her stand and be recognized” comes from the need of those who live on, a “we” in which she includes herself and the audience of readers.
The narrator recounts her first memories of Christa T. as a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl in the Hermann Goering School in Freideberg. Christa is the new student whose independent superiority undermines the authoritarian attitude of the teachers, provokes the gossip of her fellow students, and annoys the narrator. One day, after the all-clear signal following an air raid, Christa T. rolls up a newspaper and lets forth with a loud shout which shatters the repressive quiet of the Nazi town. This action jolts the narrator into a new awareness with its exuberance: “[S]uddenly I felt, with a sense of terror, that you’ll come to a bad end if you suppress all shouts prematurely.” The narrator’s initial friendship with Christa is, however, short-lived as the Christmas holidays are eclipsed by the defeat of the Nazis, turning the townspeople into refugees. The narrator gathers impressions of Christa’s flight from a diary which also contains her earlier childhood scribblings and poetry.
The two friends meet again in a university lecture hall in Leipzig seven years later. Christa has spent the intervening years as a manual laborer and, later, as a grammar-school teacher. The narrator finds their reunion miraculous, as if they both had been resurrected from the dead. A spontaneous outbreak of laughter as they part at a bus stop reveals to the narrator that Christa can still elicit the joy of surprise. Yet she has become timid, afraid of disappearing without a trace and afraid of labeling herself and thus putting boundaries around her life.
As a student, Christa is erratic and careless, dependent on her classmates for support, which they willingly provide with a trace of exasperation. Her imagination seems to fuel their quest for a perfect society, which they believe to be imminent. Yet she is the first to question the nature of such change. She asks, “What does the world need to become perfect? First of all, and for quite a long time, it needs perfect love.” Christa has an intense love affair with a fellow student, Kostia, which ends not when a blonde, Inge, is brought into their relationship as a “little sister” but when Kostia’s friend, Gunter, falls apart over the “loss” of Inge. Christa contemplates suicide and writes a letter which the narrator would like to suppress but cannot; in it, Christa divulges that she is unable to find a purpose in her life.
She returns to her home village and spends the summer recuperating. During this period, she consults...
(The entire section is 1549 words.)