Oh my goodness… from the modernity of Nick Earls’ uplifting novella Gotham to the dark horror of the 20th century… I am reading novellas to break up my reading of Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country because it’s soooo long (1443 pages!) but reading The Notebook was grim indeed.
Ágota Kristóf (1935 – 2011) was born in Hungary but after the war she fled to Switzerland to escape Soviet repression, and took factory work while she taught herself French. She became a significant author in that language, and won the 2001 Gottfried Keller Award in Switzerland and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2008. The Notebook Trilogy a.k.a. The Book of Lies – Twins Trilogy established Kristof’s reputation and consists of
- her first novel The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier, 1986), translated by Alan Sheridan 1989;
- The Proof (La Preuve, 1988), translated by David Watson, 1991; and
- The Third Lie (Le Troisieme Mensonge, 1991), translated by Mark Romano, 1996.
This Text Publishing edition brings the three volumes together, but I think that I will not be the only reader to pause to reflect before moving on to read Books 2 and 3.
In very spare prose, Kristóf tells the story of twin boys who survive war by losing their souls. Set in a place the reader assumes to be Hungary not too far from the Nazi front line – The Notebook begins as the fighting moves closer to the Big Town and the boys’ distraught mother abandons them in the safer peasant countryside, leaving them with her mother from whom she has been estranged for many years. Like the heartless relations in Grimm’s fairy tales, this grandmother is reputed to be a witch who has poisoned her husband, and she has no affection for anyone:
‘I’m not asking anything for myself. I just want my children to survive this war. The Big Town is being bombed night and day, and there’s no food left. All the children are being evacuated to the country, with relations or with strangers, anywhere.’
The other voice says:
‘So why didn’t you send them to strangers, anywhere?’
‘They’re your grandsons.’
‘My grandsons? I don’t even know them. How many are there?’
‘Tow. Two boys. Twins.’
The other voice asks:
‘What have you done with the others?’
‘Bitches have four or five puppies at a time. You keep one or two and drown the others.’ (p.4)
This grandmother, miserly, dirty, smelly and utterly devoid of feeling for these little boys, refuses to feed them unless they work. She makes them sleep out of doors. But far from being cowed by hunger into submission, they eat fruit and raw vegetables from the garden and watch her toil from dawn till dusk – until the sixth day, and then they lend a hand.
At the meal, Grandmother says:
‘Now you know you have to earn your board and lodging.’
‘It’s not that. The work is hard, but to watch someone working and not do anything is even harder, especially if someone is old.’
‘Sons of a bitch. You mean you felt sorry for me?’
‘No, Grandmother. We just felt ashamed.’ (p11)
The boys develop a harsh code of justice, where there is no right and wrong, only the impetus of need. They help themselves, and they help a deserter, a desperate neighbour, and a suicide. They are unfazed by brutal death, sexual abuse and worse. Blonde, and good-looking (once the priest’s housekeeper befriends them and keeps them clean), they look like angels, but they witness – and participate in – evil deeds all the more shocking because of the bleak, passionless style of narration.
Book 1, The Notebook is only 162 pages long, but the impact is overwhelming. The boys develop an exercise regime to toughen themselves up so that they can withstand anything, but the reader has no such defences.
I found myself thinking of that dreadful man who committed the 2011 Norwegian massacres. He seemed to have no human feelings at all, and the boys in The Notebook seem the same.
Author: Ágota Kristóf,
Title: The Notebook (The Notebook Trilogy#1),
Translated by Alan Sheridan, David Watson and Marc Romano
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing