Friday 23 September 2022


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The Notebook by Ágota Kristóf  {Reviewed by THOMAS}

In an unnamed country [Hungary] during an unnamed war [WWII], twin brothers from the Big Town are deposited with their unknown grandmother in the Little Town [near the German border]. Their belongings are immediately taken and sold by their grandmother, apart from their father’s big dictionary, which they use to write their story in the big notebook they demand from the local bookseller on the basis of ‘absolute need’. They set rules for their writing: “The composition must be true. We must describe what 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 a witch’. We would write, ‘We eat a lot of walnuts’, and not, ‘We love walnuts,’ because the word ‘love’ is not a reliable word. Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.” The twins describe how they perform ‘exercises to toughen the body’ – hurting themselves and each other until they no longer cry when they are hit, and ‘exercises to toughen the mind’ – subjecting each other to verbal abuse until they no longer blush and tremble when people insult them, and also repeating the words of affection their mother used to use to them until their eyes no longer fill with tears: “By force of repetition, these words gradually lose their meaning, and the pain they carry in them is assuaged.” Unable to be separated, controlled or opposed, the twins practise the only virtue left in a world rendered amoral by war: survival. ‘Absolute need’ is the basis of their interactions with others: they demand boots from the cobbler so they can go about in the winter, they blackmail the priest on behalf of the unfortunate Harelip, they comply with the masochistic requests of the Foreign Officer because of his ‘absolute need’ (which is no less absolute for being psychological), they wreak disfiguring revenge on the priest’s housekeeper because of her mocking of the passing [Jewish] Human Herd’s absolute need for bread. The narrators’ dual identity, the pared-back matter-of-fact prose without metaphor or superfluity, the rigour with which small and horrendous matters are treated with flat equivalence make this book powerful, moving (while remaining unsentimental) and memorable.

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