Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Difficult, difficult. How to write about this book without giving anything away? This is one of those frustrating books that wants to be discussed, but yet I’m glad I knew nothing of the story or the book’s project before turning to page one. It was a slow revelation, and very effective because of that. I want all its new readers to have a similar experience.

Well, alright, I can tell you one thing: this is a story about twin brothers who are brought to live with their grandmother in a small village in Hungary during WWII. That’s it. If I go further than that, I think it will spoil everything.

So let’s talk about the writer. Anyone heard of Agota Kristof? I hadn’t until a week ago when a friend of mine from my French book club emailed me and said she’d just been introduced to this writer, had ordered her books, had started the first and was now unable to put it down. I followed suit and had a similar experience.

Kristof is a Hungarian writer who lives in Switzerland and writes in French. Her most well-known work, a trilogy, is composed of Le grand cahier (The Notebook), La Preuve (The Proof), and Le Troisième Mensonge (The Third Lie). These are all available from Grove Press in English translation.

As I said, I had a similar experience as my friend in that I literally tore through Le Grand Cahier. Such a deceptively simple little novel. An easy story – two boys must leave the city to live in the safer countryside during the war. Yet, the novel quite simply explodes with little horrors. I tried to find another word to describe it, something other than horror, but I can’t. The book is horrifying.

This whole trick about not knowing what the book is about is key. Of course the book is about WWII, about the separation of families, about violence, about neighbors helping neighbors and neighbors hurting neighbors. It’s a classic war story. But it’s also wholly unique.

Part of what makes Le Grand Cahier so unique (and compelling, if I’m allowed this reviewer cliché) is the perspective, the way it pretends to be written by the boys themselves. They are telling their story as one of a series of imposed exercises, recording events in their notebook. They’ve promised the reader to give nothing but the facts, no interpretation, no emotion. It’s an effective way of giving the reader the “story” but their very lack of emotion or explanation creates this effect where the reader begins to see too much in the boys’ silences, begins to understand what Kristof is actually getting at. And it isn’t nice.

In any case, I’ve got the second book on its way and I’m very curious to see if Kristof will maintain the perspective she established with Le Grand Cahier and I’m doubly curious to see what she’s going to do with Klaus and Lucas as they get older…

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