Whatever or whoever convinced CB Editions to reprint Agota Kristof’s The Notebook earlier this year, that decision was a stroke of genius. Originally published in 1986 and quickly made available in English by Alan Sheridan, it had long fallen out of print in the UK. As Kristof was hardly prolific after this first novel, and died in 2011, it seemed likely that her work would fade from memory here, but instead it would be reasonable to claim that she is the rediscovery of 2014. This is all the more surprising when we take into account the unredeemed bleakness of the novel’s vision.
The novel is set during wartime – which war is not mentioned, it doesn’t matter to the poor and dispossessed of the novel, but Kristof’s birth in 1935 and various other clues make clear that this is the Second World War and we are in Eastern Europe (Kristof was born in Hungary). The novel is narrated in the first person plural by twin boys who are taken by their mother to stay with their grandmother in the countryside where it is safer and there is more food. The grandmother is a figure of unrelenting bitterness; her daughter has not spoken to her in years and only desperation has driven her back for her children’s sake. The grandmother asks her what she has done with the other children:
“Bitches have four or five puppies at a time. You keep one or two and drown the others.”
Despite Grandmother’s harsh treatment, the twins seem to have a built in survival instinct (one of Kristof’s aims seems to be to make us think about what it takes to survive): they sabotage the ladder to the attic so only they can get there and then make holes to spy on the rooms below; when they find a dead soldier in the woods they take his gun and cartridges and hide them. They take this one step further when they begin to train themselves to cope with all that life might throw at them:
“We decide to toughen our bodies to be able to bear pain without crying.
We start by hitting and then punching one another.”
Grotesque as this is, there is a logic to it that comments on the life they must live rather than their desire to be fit for it. Later ‘exercises’ include insulting each other, begging and fasting. They reject self-pity, telling a soldier who has deserted, “Crying is no use, you know. We never cry.”
The twins have each other, but other characters suffer a desperate loneliness that can only be temporarily assuaged through sexual contact in a world where affectation no longer exists. Kristof writes about sex and children through the twins’ objective lens, neither repulsed nor prurient. When the Priest’s housekeeper bathes them she cannot resist touching them and getting them to touch her: “Oh! How nice it is, how nice it is to play with you!” This scene seems positively homely, however, compared to the neighbour’s daughter enticing a dog to penetrate her, or the army officer who rents a room in Grandmother’s house asking the boys to urinate on his face. Shocking as these moments are, they demonstrate a world where appetite is all as the future is too uncertain to even be thought of.
Are the twins, then, amoral? In fact, they often show kindness in the novel, for example when they take food to a neighbour. When they see the housekeeper taunt a passing prisoner (part of the ‘human herd’ being transported through the village) with bread they punish her by placing one of the soldier’s cartridges in the firewood they take to the Priest. When a girl is housed with them for protection and they fear their Grandmother intends to kill her, they protest:
“We promised the old gentleman to look after pour cousin. So nothing must happen to her – either through accident or illness. Nothing.”
The twins may in some ways exist beyond good and evil, but they live by rules, and it is the unrelenting logic of those rules that makes the novel so terrifying. Usually child narrators are used for irony or sentimentality, but here they provide an unnerving clarity. I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s reply when he was asked about his unusual childhood in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. It was not unusual, he said, most children in the world experienced much the same.