Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I’ve written before about Agota Kristof—a Swiss writer, originally Hungarian, who escaped to Switzerland in 1956 and made her life here as a writer and playwright. If you don’t already know it, her work is brutal and provocative. Often difficult to read but yet intense and hard to put down, she is most famous for her trilogy The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie.

I discovered, quite by accident, a small collection of her short stories that came out in 2005, C’est egal. The collection contains 25 very very short and sometimes cryptic pieces. As far as I know, the collection has not been translated into English, although perhaps some of the stories have in different publications. Something I love about her work is the anger in it. It’s palpable and rises up off the page, with sharp teeth. The first story here, “The Axe” is written in the voice of a woman, explaining (innocently? naively? insanely?) to the doctor she’s just called, why she woke up to find her husband dead, his head split in two with an axe. The collection continues in much the same vein.

The title, by the way, comes from one of the pieces and given the context of that story could be translated as It doesn’t matter, or Whatever, or Who cares. This gives an pretty clear indication of the tone of the collection.

In any case, I couldn’t help myself, and have translated two of them here:

The mother

            Her son left home very young, when he was 18 years old. Several months after the death of the father.

She kept on living in the two room apartment; she was on good terms with her neighbors. She did housecleaning, mending, ironing.

One day her son knocked at the door. He was not alone. With him was a young girl, fairly pretty.

She opened her arms to them.

She hadn’t seen her son for four years.

After supper, her son said, “Mother, if it’s all right with you, we’ll both stay here.”

Her heart leapt with joy. She prepared the largest room for them, the most beautiful. But they went out around ten o’clock that night.

She told herself that they had surely gone to the movies, and she went to sleep, happy in the little room behind the kitchen.

She was no longer alone. Her son was living with her again.

In the mornings, she went out early to do her housecleaning and the small jobs that she didn’t want to give up because of this change in her situation.

At noon she cooked them good meals. Her son always brought something. Flowers, a dessert, wine, and sometimes champagne.

The coming and going of the strangers she sometimes passed in the hallway did not bother her.

“Come in, come in,” she said, “they’re in the room.”

Sometimes, when her son was not at home, and so the two women took their meals together, her eyes would meet the sad, battered eyes of the girl who was living with her. And so she would lower her own eyes, and murmur, while massaging a little ball of the soft white flesh from a piece of bread, “He’s a good boy. A nice boy.”

The girl would fold her napkin—she had manners—and walk out of the kitchen.

So much is left out of this story, so much implied. Kristof does this with a lot of her work, leaving implication and insinuation as the largest spaces for the reader to situate themself in, which can be uncomfortable or exciting, depending how you look at it.

The second story has a strange narrator, which is hard to pin down. I quite like that, avoiding the easy interpretations and thinking about this piece in terms of its relationship to the rest of her work–which spent more of its time on issues of war and totalitarianism and psychological oppression, than it did on religion.

The Great Wheel

            There is someone that I haven’t yet wanted to kill.

It’s you.

You can walk in the streets, you can go drinking and then walk the streets, I won’t kill you.

Don’t be afraid. The city isn’t dangerous. The only dangerous thing in the city is me.

I walk, I walk all throughout the streets, I kill.

But you, you don’t have anything to fear.

If I’m following you, it’s because I like the way you walk. You totter. It’s lovely. It’s almost like you limp. A bit like you’re hunchbacked. You’re not actually hunchbacked. From time to time you pull yourself up and you walk straight. But I really love you when it’s late at night, when you’re weak, when you trip, when you hunch yourself over.

I follow you, you tremble. From the cold or from fear. Although the weather is hot.

Never, nearly never, maybe it has never been so hot in our city.

And what is it that could make you afraid?


I’m not your enemy. I love you.

And no one else is able to harm you.

Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’m protecting you.

I’m also suffering, you know.

My tears—fat drops of rain—run down my face. The night covers me. The moon lights me up. The clouds hide me. The wind tears me apart. I feel a kind of tenderness for you. Sometimes this happens to me. Only rarely.

Why for you? I have no idea.

I want to follow you for a great distance, everywhere, for a long time.

I want to see you suffer even more.

I want you to have had enough of it all.

I want you to come begging to me to take you.

I want you to desire me. Want you to want me, to love me, call out to me.

And so I would take you in my arms, I would hold you close against my heart, you would be my child, my lover, my beloved.

I would take you away.

You were afraid to be born, and now you are afraid to die.

You are afraid of everything.

You shouldn’t be afraid.

There is just a great wheel turning. It’s called Eternity.

I’m the one turning the great wheel.

You do not need to be afraid of me.

Nor of the great wheel.

The only thing that can make you afraid, that can hurt you, is life, and you already know it.

4 Responses to “Agota Kristof – C’est egal”

  1. Edna Axelrod


    Great way to start my day. Since meeting you, I have been thinking a lot more about translation. Especially after reading your introduction to What if the Sun. Have you read, Is That a Fish in Your Ear, by David Bellos? I recently started it, and find the ideas fascinating.


    Sent from my iPad


    • Michelle

      Hi Edna! I haven’t read the Bellos book but have heard great things about it and hope to read it at some point.

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