Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Eventually, I did not have to restrict my reading of Agota Kristof’s Le Troisième Mensonge, the third book of her trilogy, to daylight hours only. Compared to the first two books, this one was quite tame.

Quick recap:

The first book, Le Grand Cahier, is about two young boys, twins named Claus and Lucas, who are sent to live with their grandmother during World War II. A lot of what happens to the twins is quite horrifying, as is their development and behavior. They are dealing with trauma and with abandonment, and they work very hard to rid themselves of the emotions that make their abandonment painful. A process which turns them, quite simply, into monsters. The book ends with one twin escaping across the border, leaving the other behind.

The second book, La Preuve, is about Lucas, the twin left behind. The novel follows what happens to Lucas living separate from his brother, but it also begins to raise certain questions about the “truth” of the first story. No one in the town remembers Lucas as a twin. Kristof introduces this idea quite ingeniously, quite subtly, but it becomes suddenly clear that the book, which I already knew was taking a sharp look at psychological trauma, is going to go much farther than I expected. This actually makes the ugliness of much of what happens in the story easier to stomach. By the end of La Preuve, Claus, the one who escaped, returns to his hometown to find his twin brother, only to discover that Lucas has vanished upon suspicion of murder.

Now, when Le Troisième Mensonge opens, the real question of the book is no longer what has happened to Claus and Lucas, but whether or not Claus and/or Lucas ever existed and whether or not the stories we’ve been reading about them actually occurred. In terms of story, I will leave it at that. This is one of the more difficult books I’ve ever had the pleasure of writing about, because I don’t want to give anything way.

What Kristof does with this trilogy is fascinating. Not only from a thematic perspective—everything about the books suggest she is dealing with the trauma of war, with oppressive government and the like, but by the end she’s gone very domestic, which is ultimately much more frightening—but also in the details of her writing: the POV shifts, the structure of each book and the simple, no-frills aspect of her prose. The power of her narrative and the ideas behind it kind of sneak up on you, because there is nothing showy about the project.

The trilogy is available in English as one book (Grove Press, 1997) and I’d be curious to hear if anyone has read it, and if so, how her writing worked in translation. For two reasons – because it was done by three different translators, and also because it seems to me her work would translate easily. Her sentences are very simple and spare. Each book gets progressively more complex, but even Le Troisième Mensonge is quite straightforward.

Aside from the trilogy, she has five other books. One is l’Inalphabète, a memoir, which I read over the summer, but the others are novels as far as I can tell. I’m very curious to see her other work and whether it is all as dark and psychologically complex as Le Grand Cahier, La Preuve and Le Troisième Mensonge.

2 Responses to “Agota Kristof – Le Troisième Mensonge”

  1. Michelle

    I actually think the English edition might be an easier read – because it all comes in one bound volume, and the book reads quickly, so you could get past the difficult scenes and spend more time on the questions of identity. But her project is extremely interesting, no doubt about that.

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