The Notebook – Agota Kristof (translated by Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers are taken by their mother to live with their grandmother while the war rages.

“My grandsons? I don’t even know them. How many are there?”
“Two. Two boys. Twins.”
The voice asks:
“What have you done with the others?”
Mother asks:
“What others?”
“Bitches have four or five puppies at a time. You keep one or two and drown the others.”

Grandmother’s personality is established very quickly. Kristof uses short, precise sentences to convey information:

Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she’s finished eating or drinking. She doesn’t wear underpants. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs, and pisses on the ground under her skirt. Of course, she doesn’t do it in the house.

Early in the novella, we are told the reason for this: it is one of many exercises that the boys carry out. These exercises begin when they realise their grandmother’s treatment of them is harsh – she’s sold the luxuries their mother sent them with; she makes them do chores to earn their food and shelter; there’s nothing to wash with, and she hits, pulls and grabs them.

Their first exercise is to toughen the body: they slap and punch each other; they strip naked and hit each other with a belt; they put their hands over fire; they cut their thighs, arms and chests, and they pour alcohol on their wounds.

Their second exercise is to toughen the mind. Their grandmother calls them “Sons of a bitch!” Others say worse.

When we hear these words, our faces get red, our ears buzz, our eyes sting, our knees tremble.

They don’t want to react that way, so they call each other abusive names until they are immune to them. They also use the words their mother used to say to them: “My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!” By repeating them, they also lose their power.

This is the crux of Kristof’s exploration: if two young children are taken from those they love, with whom they have a comfortable life and are placed in the care of mean and cruel people – and it’s not just their grandmother, there is also the soldier they come into regular contact with and the priest and his housekeeper and Harelip, who lives next door and thinks no one loves her so allows the twin’s dog to penetrate her – how will they survive? What will they become?

Their story is told by the twins themselves. They blackmail the local bookseller into supplying them with writing equipment, including a notebook. In it they write compositions which they set each other.

To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not Good”, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what it is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.”

It is forbidden to write, “The Little Town is beautiful,” because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.

Similarly, if we write, “The orderly is nice,” this isn’t a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, “The orderly has given us some blankets.”

By doing this, Kristof has set herself quite a restrictive writing challenge. The problem with ‘flat writing’, as the name seems to imply, is it could lead to writing that lacks depth. However, her skill ensures that this style is used to allow gaps in the writing that the reader fills. These gaps provoke utter horror at the way the twins are treated and at their behaviour.

The Notebook is an incredible book – I use that term to refer to both the content and the style. It is brutal from beginning to end but it is also gripping; I read it in one sitting and when I reached the end – and what an end it is – I was glad I’d bought the edition that includes the other two novellas in the trilogy – The Proof and The Third Lie because really, the end of The Notebook is the beginning of the story.

7 thoughts on “The Notebook – Agota Kristof (translated by Alan Sheridan)

  1. Terrific review, Naomi, especially the way you’ve analysed the style and Kristof’s approach. I have a copy of this to read, but it’ll be a question of finding the right moment. It sounds so stark and brutal…


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