It will ruin the extraordinary experience of reading this book if you have not read its predecessors, and it will ruin the experience of reading them if you read this review or this book first. It is not a matter of knowing a couple of plot points and forgetting them by the time you read the book later. Trust me, you will be denying yourself a unique reading experience if you ignore this warning.
Ok, if you’re still with me, and I hope that only those who’ve read all three books are, then you know about the confusion and self-doubt that permeates the reading experience. Yes, The Notebook was about two very odd twins called Lucas and Claus, and it brought home to us their monstrous ethical framework based on the needs of others, as they perceived it. Narrated in the first person plural without identifying which one of the twins is recording events, it showed us odd characters dealing with the effects of war and totalitarianism in ways that were repugnant, but well, we knew where we were. Fictionally speaking, that is.
Next came The Proof. Narrated mostly by Lucas in first person singular, it traces his story in adulthood under the Soviets and in the same bland, disassociated voice, records his bizarre relationships and the damage they do. Then, in the novella’s last pages, although it’s not immediately obvious, the identity of the narrator becomes ambiguous. In the voice that the reader has come to recognise as Lucas, it observes the return of Claus from the other country, twenty years after Lucas has disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and mistaken for him by everyone he meets. If Lucas has disappeared, who now is narrating the story? It isn’t Claus. Can it be Lucas observing Claus? Is it Lucas masquerading as Claus? Is the other twin the product of a lonely imagination, a yearning for lost family, a desire to have an undamaged mirror image of the self? Or someone to share or take the blame?
The reader doesn’t know because The Proof concludes with an official report which debunks the notebook as evidence of the existence of Lucas, disorientating the reader (even though the reader has learned by now not to trust the authorities and their ‘flexible’ attitudes to proof). Lucas, whose identity had seemed stable – even reinforced by the events of The Proof – is suddenly an ambiguous character. The story of the twins’ lives, which the narrator has implied is the same as the story recorded in their notebooks, (recognisable as an allegory of the separations which were forced on people by the Cold War), suddenly morphs into something else as well.
So, then, to The Third Lie. If The Proof had made me realise I had been naïve in my interpretation of The Notebook, The Third Lie made me realise that artful confusion was the author’s intent. The Third Lie is narrated by one of the twins, who’s been detained because his visa has lapsed (which from the enigmatic ending of The Proof suggests the narrator is Claus). His detention isn’t too onerous, but he’s not well, with heart problems. He has a limp, too, from a long period of illness in his childhood, which suggests the narrator is Lucas. The reader is baffled: there are scraps of this new story that can be reconciled with what has gone before, but most of it cannot. All that is the same is the cold, hard, indifferent tone of the narration, recounting incidents of vicious cruelty to other children in the hospital, a comprehensive lack of concern for others and an implacable refusal to cooperate with anyone unless it suits.
The Third Lie takes the reader back to the border crossing that horrified us in The Notebook. In the aftermath there are questions about the identity of the twin who crossed to freedom, and…
The child signs the statement, in which there are three lies.
The man he crossed the frontier with was not his father.
The child is not eighteen, but fifteen.
His name is not Claus. (p.348)
The identity of the narrator is now much more than ambiguous: We are not meant to know who is who, or even if they both exist. We can guess whether one of them is pretending to be, or deluded or in denial about the other. We can note that their names are anagrams of each other, and wonder if they are doppelgangers. We can try to cobble together a narrative that seems coherent. But it seems that to do so is to miss Kristof’s point: in the savagery of Europe’s 20th century, truth and lies are indistinguishable, and history just depends on who’s telling it at any point in time. Personal histories are rewritten alongside historical revisionism. A name on a gravestone may not be the real one, but it’s either an act of kindness or one of pragmatic indifference to tidy things up and brush the truth away.
In Russia in 2012, I was struck by the way tour guides batted away their history using the expression during Soviet times. In Barcelona today, you’d never know there had been a bloody civil war; it’s illegal to mention the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. We can all think of other examples where history is sanitised – so as not to rake up old wounds/upset the tourists. For all that these novellas are written with great restraint and horrors are noted in understated prose without dwelling on gruesome details, Kristof’s trilogy suggests the suppressed rage that people must feel when the authorised narrative doesn’t mesh with the lived reality…
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