The Proof is second in Ágota Kristóf ‘s The Notebook Trilogy, and it’s written in the same chilling unemotional prose. It follows on from The Notebook (see my review) which introduced the story of twins Lucas and Claus and their emotionally deprived childhood and subsequent development into amoral adolescence. The banality of the evil they do in the service of a warped logic all their own is all recorded in a notebook kept safe from prying eyes.
WARNING: SPOILERS (if you haven’t already read The Notebook)
The war is over and the oppressive authoritarianism of new rulers takes over as Lucas negotiates adolescence and early adulthood – without his brother who has escaped over the border in the shocking circumstances at the end of The Notebook. The disappearance of Claus means that Lucas must learn to live without his other half. The two were inseparable; they were two halves of a whole and they acted together in unison or in complementary ways. Their identities were fused in one, and each one knows what the other is thinking.
Lucas sits down on the bench in the garden and rests his head against the white wall of the house. The sun blinds him. He shuts his eyes.
‘What do I do now?’
‘Same as before Keep getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, doing what has to be done in order to live.’
‘It will be a long time.’
‘Perhaps a whole lifetime.’
It takes a moment or two for it to register that this exchange takes place when Lucas is entirely alone and that this is a conversation with his invisible brother. The next paragraph confirms that his entire family is entirely gone – and all of them in circumstances that are chilling.
Mention of dissidents being sent far away to a snowbound labour camp evokes Siberia, and it becomes clear from the purge of banned books from the library that the Communists have taken over Hungary. In time Lucas needs an ID card but he has no proof of birth or any other papers. His friend Victor who runs the bookshop sends him off to see his friend Peter, the Party Secretary, so things are arranged. Or so it seems.
Lucas befriends a desperate young woman called Yasmine, who bears a son called Mathias. In time they form a kind of family and Lucas develops an obsessive bonding with Mathias. Mathias grows up to have the same kind of detached morality as Lucas, with the same disdain for love and friendships, the same cruel logic that enables him to disassociate from human emotion and the same dangerously possessive attitude about the people he chooses to have in his life. He’s only a child, but his ruthless capacity to eliminate things that get in his way evokes Stalin.
All through the reading of The Proof, the title niggles away in the mind. Proof of what, and in what context? Just as there were rumours about the grandmother in The Notebook, now there are questions asked about certain deaths and disappearances. While the village didn’t need proof to come to certain conclusions, the new regime soon shows itself not to need proof of allegations to inflict severe punishments including swift executions (and too bad if judgements turn out later to have been wrong). But in some circumstances such as the death of someone trying to flee over the border, well, that’s different: investigations are perfunctory, and it suits them to have no proof so that it can turn a blind eye.
At the conclusion of the novella the reader is confronted by a conundrum. Claus comes back, his arrival coinciding with the lapsing of the statute of limitations twenty years after the disappearance of Lucas in suspicious circumstances. Coming from a free state, he has a passport to confirm his identity – but that’s not proof enough for those who knew Lucas. They don’t believe in the existence of Claus:
The man takes off his glasses. ‘Lucas!’
Claus smiles. ‘You know my brother! Where is he?’
The man repeats, ‘Lucas!’
‘I’m Lucas’s brother. I’m called Claus.’
‘Don’t joke, Lucas, please.’
Claus takes the passport from his pocket. ‘See for yourself.’
The man examines the passport. ‘That doesn’t prove anything. ‘
Claus says, ‘I’m sorry, I have no other means of proving my identity. I am Claus T. and I’ve come to look for my brother, Lucas. You know him. He has certainly told you about me, his brother Claus.’
‘Yes, he often talked to me about you, but I must admit I never believed you really existed.’
Claus laughs. ‘Whenever I spoke to people about Lucas, they didn’t believe me either. Rather funny, don’t you think?’ (p.287)
After a time the authorities become involved in this case of ambiguous identity. Claus produces the manuscript of the notebook – written mostly, he says, by Lucas, which proves the existence of his brother. However in a authorial switch from plain unadorned prose to writing in pedantic officialise, the ending makes clear that the authorities think the notebook is a fiction and that all of what we have been reading never happened.
Well, did it? We have to read The Third Lie to find out.
The Notebook Trilogy a.k.a. The Book of Lies – Twins Trilogy is brought together in this Text Publishing edition 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 Marc Romano, 1996.
Author: Ágota Kristóf,
Title: The Notebook Trilogy,
Translated by Alan Sheridan, David Watson and Marc Romano
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing