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Agota Kristof’s “The Notebook”

Somewhere near a war-torn European border that is never specified, a mother packs off her twin boys to live with their grandmother in a small, isolated village called Little Town, hoping that it is a safer place for them to live than near the fighting. The boys immediately resent having to live in a crude, backward place with a woman known locally as “the witch,” a grandmother who they have never even met before.

Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating or drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt. Of course, she doesn’t do it in the house.

The brothers commit to each other that they will do whatever it will takes to survive—and survive together. They begin by learning how to find food for themselves in the forest, how to forage and how to fish, so that they no longer need to be dependent on their grandmother’s terrible and scant offerings. Then they they begin a process of deliberately hardening their bodies and teaching their minds. Imagine a pair of ten-year olds creating an amateur Navy SEAL training course and you’ve got the idea. But their training quickly escalates and in no time they have the skills to steal, to blackmail, and to kill people. The way that they teach themselves composition is to write every day on sheets of paper for two hours about a designated topic and then make a judgement on the result.

If it’s ‘Not good’, we throw the composition in the fire and try to write about the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s ‘Good’, we can copy out the composition into the Big Notebook.

To decide whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write: ‘The Little Town is beautiful’, because the Little Town may be beautiful for us and ugly for someone else. . .

Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

The Big Notebook they reference is, of course, the very book we are reading, Agota Kristof’s The Notebook. The rules that the brothers define for their own writing are the same rules that Agota Kristof must obey in writing The Notebook. No “words that define feelings.” Keep “to the faithful description of facts.” Much of the time, these strictures are largely invisible as you read about their daily activities, when you don’t expect to see much emotion intrude. But then you come across passages like the one below that should be exploding with emotions of one sort or another. After the village has been successfully invaded, a neighboring woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered by enemy soldiers tells the twins she doesn’t want to live under the rule of the conquering forces.

“Do you really want to die?”
“What else could I want? If you want to do something for me, set light to the house. I don’t want them to find us like this.”
We say:
“But it’ll hurt terrible.”
“Don’t bother yourselves about that. Set light to the house, that’s all, if you’re capable of it.”
“Yes, madam, we are capable of it. You can depend on us.”
We slit her throat with the razor, then we go and siphon off petrol from an army vehicle. We pour the petrol over both bodies and over the walls of the house. We set light to it and go home.

The twins became survivors by adopting the methods of perpetrators. They have the Grandmother and other villagers under their collective thumbs. When the village is overcome by the rampaging enemy army, they immediately switch sides, learn the new language, and take up bartering with the occupying soldiers. Their loyalty is only to themselves. Kristof is not interested in the psychology of survivors, she is probing the pathology of psychopaths and how their behavior, left unchecked, can lead to fascism, how the warped world-view of an individual (in this case, a pair of individuals) develops into a Hitler, a Putin, a Trump.

Students of Freud and philosophy (I am neither) will have an absolute field day with The Notebook. In the Afterword in the recent CB Editions translation of The Notebook, the controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek excitedly declares in his opening sentence: “There is a book through which I discovered what kind of person I really want to be: The Notebook.” A trim four pages later he closes his with this statement. “This is where I stand, how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would have been a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.” Is this for real?

The Notebook is written in the simple sentences and easy words of a children’s book, which makes it all the more jarring when the twins turn out to be evil incarnate. By the end of the book the twins are presumably teenagers, but the language they (and Kristof) use hasn’t changed. Kristof (1935-2011), who was born in Hungary, fled that country in 1956 and settled in French-speaking Switzerland and wrote her novels in her adopted language of French, which she apparently learned rather late. It’s been speculated that this might have contributed to the simplicity of the French in The Notebook.

It’s also that strange, fairly rare book narrated by the plural first-person pronoun “we.” But the effect of this “we,” which is the voice of two boys, is very different from the “we” in a book like Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, where the “we” is the cumulative voice of many Japanese “picture brides” who came to America in the early twentieth century. In most cases, writers choose multitudes for their plural first-person “we” narrators so that the reader can’t focus on any single character as the narrator. Here, we can still envision a pair of boys as our collective narrators.

One of the things I found remarkable about The Notebook was just how much emotion I felt throughout the book, even though Kristof had deliberately stripped it of “words that define feelings.” The complete lack of emotion shown by the twins in the midst of wartime, violence, rape, and other crimes (many of which they were committing), brought out a range of horror, curiosity, and astonishment in me. The twins don’t seem to understand that their decision to stick to the facts in their notebook is no guarantee that readers will remain similarly emotion-free.

The Notebook is the first of a trilogy of novels that continues with The Proof (La preuve), 1986, and concludes with The Third Lie (Le troisième mensonge), 1991. In the last two novels, the twins are separated and the story line revolves largely around their easily confusing identities as twins and their conflicting stories about what has happened to them. One literary critic has suggested that these two novels are about “how malleable the past actually is,” especially for those “Central European countries who must reconstruct their history after decades of Communist subterfuge.” (Martha Kuhlman, “The Double Writing of Agota Kristof and the New Europe” Studies in 20th Century Literature) More than the last two parts of the trilogy, The Notebook feels like a standalone novel for its focus on the boys’ transition from victims to masters, from 98-pound weaklings to murderers. As unpleasant as The Notebook can sound, it is a brisk, captivating 160 pages that pulls me in every time I open it.


Agota Kristof. The Notebook. London: CB Editions, 2014. Translated from the 1986 French original Le Grand Cahier by Alan Sheridan.

This is book number 5 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.
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