Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It takes a lot of courage to read Agota Kristof before going to bed. Or so I am learning. When I read the first novel in her trilogy, Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook), I read it in two sittings, both during the afternoon and there was enough distance between the dark scenes of the story and my bedtime that nothing overlapped. I am quite susceptible to nightmare. And the same thing happened when I read the second book, La Preuve (The Proof). But yesterday evening I sat down with La Preuve to skim through it quickly again in preparation to start the final book in the trilogy, Le Troisième Mensonge (The Third Lie), and realized that the story was too unsettling for that hour of my day.

Kristof’s world is brutal. I’ve read many a book with difficult subject matter (Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down comes directly to mind), but Kristof is absolutely unflinching in her indictment of human nature, especially because her writing is so simple, so undemanding. This is what I wrote about 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.

The second novel, La Preuve, picks up the story at the moment the twin boys separate (one having crossed over the border, the other staying behind—how they get across is extremely disturbing) and follows Lucas, the one who stayed behind, for the next fifteen years or so, through two very important relationships, until he is forced to leave the town.

What I found so unsettling about this second novel is how cleanly Kristof depicts her psychopath. There isn’t another word for Lucas. To my standards, he’s a monster. As shown in Le Grand Cahier, he spent so many years exorcising his emotion away that nothing remains. Or at least only the primal impulse. The original want or fear or anger, and then he acts on that original feeling without allowing any other emotion or rationale to mediate. When he wants something—a woman, a young child to adopt—he does the simplest, quickest thing to fulfill the desire. Including murder.

On the other hand, Lucas is capable of infinite tenderness toward the small child he adopts. He does everything in his power to give this little boy a happy childhood. It doesn’t work, of course. The child is miserable for a variety of reasons, and as intense and emotionally frightening as Lucas. Their story can only be a tragedy.

Although I have to be careful about when I sit down to do it, meaning not before sleep, I’m quite eager to read the final book. Despite the difficult nature of the events in each story, I’d like to see where Kristof is going with her meditation on psychological trauma. Lucas isn’t normal, that’s easy to see, but the world around him is nearly as horrific and I’m curious whether she is making an argument against a certain kind of emotional abandonment or about a specific system of political oppression. The trilogy begins during WWII but extends thirty to forty years beyond. War is awful, yes, and the cause of significant personal trauma, but Kristof seems to be suggesting that redemption on any level is never possible.

3 Responses to “finishing Agota Kristof”

  1. Stefanie

    Oh my, I haven’t even read the books and I got a chill reading your post! I can see why you wouldn’t want to read them too close to bedtime. They would not make for sweet dreams.

    • Michelle

      Funnily enough, the third book in the trilogy wasn’t really scary at all. It just explained what was going on in the first two – very cool! Not that I’d recommend Kristof to someone looking for lighthearted reading 🙂 but I’m very glad I’ve now gotten through the series.

  2. Rebecca H.

    Interesting! I’ve never heard of Kristof before, but she sounds very interesting, and I’m curious about these books. It sounds like the three fit together really well.

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