This trilogy by Hungarian writer Agota Kristof is simply amazing. I read through the three novels quickly, and I’m still reeling from the story she tells about twin brothers who endured violence and privation in WWII, separation during the Cold War, and a troubling reunion afterward. Certainly, these novels can be read as the story of a divided and reunified Europe. They were written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Soviet Union was in dissolution and the wall came down in Berlin. How do people talk about a shared experience when they cannot admit out loud or would prefer to forget the details of what happened? How can people who would seem to share so much cross the chasm created by time, physical distance, and isolation? How does one write about and process their own trauma? These are the issues at stake in Kristof’s trilogy.
The first novel, The Notebook, is without doubt one of the most disturbing novels I’ve ever read. The narrative point of view is that of young twin brothers who have been sent to their grandmother in a small town near the border during WWII. We do not know the name of the town, nor do we know the brothers’ names. They think and act as one as they process the trauma of separation from their mother, from their home city, from school, and from civilized life. Their grandmother is known locally as “the witch,” and it is assumed that she poisoned her late husband. The woman sounds like a nasty, dirty old crone, and she resents having to take care of her estranged daughter’s sons. Out here near the border, the boys revert to a kind of primal state. They refuse to attend school, with the full support of their grandmother who is wary of authority. They spend their days working on her small farm and vineyard, taking care of her animals, exploring the forest, and spying on the foreign officer who has commandeered a room in grandmother’s house. The boys have their own ethical code, which they enforce without emotion. Kristof’s descriptions of the violence and perversions they witness is extraordinarily uncomfortable to read, but I suspect that at least some of it is based on her own experiences in Hungary during the war. Equally disturbing is her description of how they steel themselves against the pains and injustices of their situation. They practice beating each other so as to withstand pain, they practice going hungry and even sensory deprivation. They also act as a judge, jury and executioner when they witness others behaving in ways that violate their ethical code. Pain and death do not move them when they experience them or witness others experiencing them. By the time the war is over, they are young teens who have seen too much. The foreign army has lost and left, but the next army has arrived (the Russians, although not stated as such) and the border is still dangerous to cross. It is at this point that the boys who have thought and acted as one are separated by their own choice, one headed west, and the other remaining in the small town.
The first novel is called The Notebook because among the very few things the brothers brought with them to the small town is a notebook that had belonged to their father. We do not know what it contains, only that it is important to the boys. It is saved and hidden away. The brother who stayed behind is in possession of this notebook, and it is his story that is told in the second novel of the trilogy, The Proof. Here we finally learn the boys’ names — Claus and Lucas. Claus is the brother who crossed the border while Lucas stayed behind.
The Proof deals with the years immediately after the end of the war, into the 1950s and 1960s when revolution arose in the unnamed country. Lucas continues to live near the heavily guarded border on his deceased grandmother’s land, but he suffers from depression due the separation from his brother. He strikes up a friendship with the local priest, visiting regularly to bring him food and play chess. Lucas eventually comes to the rescue of a young woman with a baby who is contemplating killing the child due to the horrible circumstances of her life. Lucas cares very much for the baby, and he also develops relationships with several people in the town, including a party official, a librarian whose husband was killed by the new regime as a traitor, and the owner of the local bookshop. The bookshop was important to Lucas and Claus during the war, as it was the place where they could get pencils and paper. They both felt it was important to write as a way to process their experiences, and when Lucas has the chance to take ownership of the bookstore, he does so. At the end of this novel, Lucas’ relationships have mostly come crashing down around him, and it seems as though he has disappeared. Yet the notebook and a manuscript are left behind, proof of his existence.
The Third Lie is a brilliant novel, full of surprises and sorrow. It is divided into two parts, each narrated by one brother. Claus, now 50 years old and ill, has returned to the small town on a 30-day renewable visa in the hopes of finding his brother. The political situation is such that travel is now possible, and while much of the small town is still familiar to Claus, the place and people have changed. Claus ends up overstaying his visa and is held by local authorities until the embassy for his home country can repatriate him. In this part of the novel, Kristof, via Claus, does not relate events in a linear fashion, and this keeps the reader guessing about what has happened to the brothers over the past decades. I can’t reveal too much without spoiling the story, but once we get to the second part of the novel, all becomes clear. And it is heartbreaking, but what remains constant through the trilogy is the centrality of writing, the importance of being able to process what one has endured, whether it is through factual reporting, poetry, or fiction. And as painful as separations are, reunions can be tricky things, too. Joy and pain can both be present, as well as anger and misunderstanding — for people, for nations.
I’m pretty sure I first heard about this trilogy through one of the many book lists I’ve seen over the years, and Kristof’s name was on something like “women writers you should have heard of but haven’t.” The Notebook is the most famous of her works, and it has been turned into a play, but if you read it, please do read the other two books as well. This trilogy is just outstanding.