Alex Christofi’s Let Us Be True is one of those books I’m delighted was sent my way. I’m not sure I would have happened upon it otherwise but it turned out to be absorbing, insightful and beautifully written. Largely set in Paris during the middle of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Ralf who becomes smitten with Elsa and remains so for decades after their brief affair ends.
In 1958, Ralf spends his evenings drinking at Jacques’ bar and shooting the political breeze with his Algerian friend Fouad. He and his mother fled Germany for London in 1933 after the death of Ralf’s Jewish geneticist father. His mother still lives in London but Ralf left to study in Paris, distracted by easy ways to make money tutoring language students. One evening, rifling through an apparently abandoned handbag, trying to find details of its owner, he’s punched in the face by a woman. This seemingly unpromising meeting marks the start of Ralf and Elsa’s affair in which she apparently blows hot and cold, rarely telling him anything about herself until Ralf decides to find out who she is. What he discovers is hardly a surprise but it’s far from the entire story. When Elsa leaves Paris, Ralf stays, occasionally involving himself in the Algerians’ protests against French oppression alongside Fouad and later becoming caught up in the student protests of ’68 before moving back to London. Ralf’s is a life lived alone, continually buffeted by the events that marked both the century and the countries in which he lives, adopted or otherwise.
Christofi explores the way political events can shape ordinary lives through the framework of Ralf and Elsa’s love affair: both are Germans who survived the war which ripped apart their childhoods; Fouad fought for the French but finds himself without rights as an Algerian; Ralf’s dulling of his pain leads him into the student protest against French political stalemate in 1968. All this is done with a light touch, a vivid background to Ralf and Elsa’s stories, told from both perspectives before and after they knew each other. The striking opening sentence sets the tone for the rest of the novel which is pleasingly uncluttered, letting its characters and their histories speak for themselves. It’s an engrossing, thoughtful novel with important things to say exemplified by Ralf’s reflections on his solitary life after the death of his mother: ‘How easily one might neglect those one loved by chasing the big story, the big lie that history was a matter of ideals and not compassion’. It ends, I’m pleased to say, on a hopeful note.