Agota Kristof is a Hungarian writer who left the country for Switzerland aged twenty-one when Russia suppressed the uprising of 1956. In 1986 she published her first, and most famous, novel The Notebook, written in French. It was followed by two further novels – The Proof and The Lie – to form a trilogy. Yesterday is a later novel, from 1995, which was translated by David Watson in 1997, but has recently been reprinted. It tells the story of an immigrant who spends his days working in a factory and writes at night – just as Kristof worked in a factory for five years when she moved to Switzerland – but is far from being autobiographical.

The novel’s narrator, Tobias, hates working in the factory. As the novel opens, he stays on the bus as it passes the factory stop, only getting off at the end of the line where he is found later, face down in the mud, by a walker. He is taken to a psychiatric hospital, which he finds preferable to the life he was living:

“I was happy to stay in hospital, because I didn’t have to go back to the factory. I was fine here, I was looked after, I could sleep.”

Here, a psychiatrist asks him about the woman, Line, he is waiting for, but most of what he tells him is untrue. He claims that Line is made up, “she doesn’t exist,” and, when asked about his childhood:

“I’m a war orphan. My parents were killed in the air raids. I am the only survivor from my family. I have no brothers or sisters.”

In fact, his mother was not killed in an air raid but brought him up alone, prostituting herself so they could survive:

“My mother was the thief, beggar, and whore of the village.”

When he goes to school, he realises that the man who visits his mother who (unlike the rest of her clientele) clearly isn’t a peasant, is the teacher. (“He gazed at me for a long time, he stroked my hair, he kissed me on the forehead, he pressed my hands against his cheeks,” is his description of a prior encounter at home). It is there he meets Line, Caroline, the teacher’s daughter:

“You’re wearing my brother’s jacket. And his shoes. What’s your name?”

As you have probably guessed, Tobias is the teacher’s son. He finds this out when he overhears a conversation between the teacher and his mother at the point (twelve years old) when he can leave school:

“I don’t want my son to become a peasant. Even worse, a farm hand, a beggar like you.”

Tobias is filled with hatred for both his mother and his father, and he runs away – “without realising it, I arrived in another country in a large city.” He changes his name to that of his father, Sandor. After spending some time in a children’s home, he begins work in the factory. His life becomes routine and he even develops a relationship with a woman, Yolande, but, as he tells the psychiatrist, he goes on seeing her “because I don’t have anyone else.”

“Today I start the idiotic routine again. I get up at five o’clock in the morning, I wash, I shave, I make some coffee, I set off, I run to the main square, I get on the bus, I close my eyes, the full horror of my present life stares me in the face.”

Everything changes when he see Line in the bus one morning and realises she, too, is now working at the factory:

“So it was her I was waiting for! I didn’t know. I thought I was waiting for a woman who was unknown, beautiful, unreal. And it’s the real Line that has come after fifteen years of separation.”

The mythical Line he was waiting becomes the actual Line from his childhood. Despite the fact she is married with a child he is determined that she is the only woman for him.

Yesterday, then, is a love story of a kind, though Tobias’ love is like a straw he holds onto in a storm. He is a character who has had nothing but bad luck, and whose decisions seem only to reinforce that misfortune. The thought of Line is all that lies between him and giving up. His life is not quite as wretched as those in The Notebook, but he has little to hope for.

This is partly due to his status as an immigrant, and the novel is very good on immigrant experience. Tobias’ only friend (a generous description of their relationship) is another immigrant, Jean, even poorer than he, whom he pays to paint his room. Jean sends the little money Tobias can pay him home to his wife and children, but he can’t go home himself:

“The whole village would laugh at me. I promised I’d make a fortune.”

Jean “cries almost all the time” and the immigrant community is riven with suicides:

“The post mortem showed that Vera had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
“Our first death.
“There were others not long after.
“Robert opened his veins in his bath.
“Albert hanged himself, leaving a note on the table written in our language, ‘Fuck you.’”

Very few writers can access grinding poverty in the way Kristof can, embedding the narrative, without commentary, within that world. Both Line and writing represent vague, unformed hopes for Tobias, and it is questionable whether even he has much faith in them. Readers should not expect either to lead to salvation. Kristof is not for the faint hearted, but she is a very special writer.

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3 Responses to “Yesterday”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds like an important book – tough yet worthwhile and insightful. I have to give myself a little push to read something like this every now again, especially at the moment when the wider world feels so uncertain and worrying. Nevertheless, gaining a deeper understanding of the immigrant experience feels more important than ever right now, especially in light of recent events…

  2. Best Books of 2020 Part 1 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] contrasting tone, Agota Kristof’s Yesterday (translated by David Watson) is a bleak vision of grinding poverty, both in childhood and […]

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