Let Us Be True…
Paris, 1958. After a chance encounter, Ralf and Elsa begin a love affair that will mark their lives. Both already bear scars from their continent’s violent upheavals. The end of the war brought Ralf to Paris, where he feels he can hide from the past. Elsa meanwhile tries to hide not just her past from Ralf, but her present too. As they fall more deeply in love they face a dilemma: can you really love someone without giving yourself away?
In a Paris recovering from the Second World War but riven by protests and discontent as the old world order falls away, Ralf tries desperately to hold on to the only person he has ever felt he belongs with, while facing the prospect of a reality where love might not be enough.
Deeply moving and sweeping in scope, Alex Christofi’s second novel is an unforgettable love story as well as a profoundly affecting study of the personal cost of Europe’s bloody twentieth century.
I have to say, right up front, that Let Us Be True was so much more than what I was expecting. A love story, yes, but more than this; a deeply philosophical narrative of identity delivered with elegance and poignancy.
Ralf and Elsa are Germans in a post WWII Europe. Ralf is ‘sort of Jewish’ and Elsa is the very picture of Aryan womanhood: ‘biologically valuable’. They were both adolescents during the rise of Nazi Germany, and while Ralf was relocated out of Germany into England before the war, Elsa only left Germany five years after the war’s conclusion. Each of them are now adrift, no longer able to call Germany home but feeling like interlopers everywhere else.
It’s such an interesting concept to explore and one I will admit to giving little thought to. A war ends, but what happens to those ordinary citizens, the ones who believed whole heartedly in the ideology of their nation and its leader:
‘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.’
To begin again is not so simple. People remember and they still hate the enemy; the suggestion of forgiveness is offensive. They detect accents, assess appearances, pass judgement; unrest remains. For Elsa, who married a Frenchman and left Germany for good, her history was still inside her, permanently marking her, preventing her from living her life with ease:
‘She had been a different person once. She knew unutterable words, could see the faces of these men shaved and bound up in the square with signs around their necks, had lived above a stolen shop, praised for not being them. But they lived on as evidence that a complete crime was impossible, that you cannot create a new world, only set new conditions. What would the world have been like without this? These bakeries, these men with hats and ringlets, brothers, husbands, sons, who stepped onto the road to let her pass in safety.
Say they had been a corrupt people, and it was possible to extinguish them. The act of killing tainted the purity of the vision. One could not separate what one was from what one did; one did not accept the truth from a liar. She herself had helped to shoot down planes, the pilots burning in their shells. Some might call her a murderer. What would be done with her and people like her in the coming decades, the damned, silent mass?’
I was particularly moved by Elsa and her story. Her life in Nazi Germany was recounted with a natural ease that made the horrors of everyday living within Germany more pronounced. With Elsa, Alex Christofi has demonstrated how impossible it is to leave your past, that ‘other self’, entirely behind. Elsa didn’t always act in a way that inspired admiration, but once you’ve read this novel to its end, her choices along the way make much better sense in hindsight. I developed a great deal of empathy for Elsa over the course of this novel. The weight of a nation’s atrocities must have sat heavily on many shoulders after WWII.
Ralf has a different history, but is no less displaced or weighted down by it. Not knowing Elsa’s past – since she refuses to disclose it – he fails to ever truly understand her, yet still loves her for his entire life, a love story to set your heart sighing. He spends much of his life not knowing who he is, where he belongs, or what he believes in. Later in his life, he goes out of his way to make kindness to strangers his main call of duty, and I love this path of redemption. Ralf is a complex character, permanently shadowed by the loss of his father at such a young age:
‘Ralf looked hard at her. “No, this is not my life. We may struggle one way but we are all being dragged another by our heritage, by history.”’
He could never truly shed his past and claim his own identity, not until the very end of the novel, when life finally deals him a good hand.
Alex Christofi has a beautiful turn of phrase. He conveys so much through Ralf’s and Elsa’s reflective backstories, concisely depicting both horror and glory with ease and compassion. Let Us Be True is a novel that has imprinted onto my conscience and will stay with me for a long time. If you have an interest in stories about WWII, I highly recommend you add Let Us Be True to your reading list.
Thanks is extended to Profile Books via Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Let Us Be True for review.