The Notebook – Agota Kristof and a sensual, cold, cruel passion. (Book review)


The Notebook

Author: Agota Kristof

Translator: Alan Sheridan

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic

Published first in French in 1986 and then translated into thirty languages after Kristof won the European prize for French literature, The Notebook (the first in a trilogy) is one of the most disturbing accounts of war-torn society because of its focus, not on the brutal assault of the front line, but of the impact of war on society and those who remain at home. It is a tragic tale told through the eyes of twins, Claus and Lucas who are taken from the big city by their mother who can no longer find work and feed them, to the home of their grandmother, a woman the locals call The Wicked Witch. She immediately informs them she will not be using their names, instead calling them sons-of-a-bitch, which remains a reference to her daughter of whom she does not approve.

The boys learn very quickly that their new environment is harsh and that they must assimilate, and so they begin an observational relationship with the world that is manifest in their notebooks in which they dutifully document everything they see with as much clarity and as little colour as possible. They learn fast that emotional engagement with their surrounds will bring them great pain, so they choose a path of toughening each other up instead, beating each other bloody in order to withstand the physical punishment from the grandmother, mimicking the soft sweet voice of their mother to each others face refusing tears until they can remember her without affection or longing, and applying only that which is absolutely necessary to their own life. Interpretation becomes an intellectual excercise in stoicism, as the children devote their day to withstanding the perpetual attacks from the world around them.

We ask:
“Why don’t you go and buy somethign to eat? Don’t you have any money?”
“No I don’t have any money, and I can’t be seen. I must hide. No one must see me.”
“I left my regiment without leave. I ran away. I’m a deserter. If they found me I’d be shot or hanged.”
We ask:
“Like a murderer?”
“Yes, exactly like a murderer.”
“And yet you don’t want to kill anyone. You just want to go home.”
“Yes I want to go home.”
We ask:
“What do you want us to bring you to eat?”
When we come back with the food and blanket, he says:
“You’re very kind.”
We say:
“We weren’t trying to be kind. We’ve brought you these things because you absolutely need them. That’s all.”
He says again:
“I don’t know how to thank you. I’ll never forget you.”
His eyes fill with tears.
We say:
“Crying is no use, you know. We never cry, even though we aren’t men yet, like you.”
He smiles and says:
“You’re right. Excuse me. I won’t do it anymore. It’s just because of the exhaustion.”

They are pure abjection, living on the margins of society, keeping their bodies dirty and existing in harmony with their own filth and the filth of their Grandmother. However, through this connection with abjection (a deliberate choice they make to refuse society) they develop a judgement system that is immediate, without any attempt at a form of morality or empathic engagement, based purely on the absolute need of a human at any given time. For example, when they notice the hunger in the girl next door, they approach a priest they know has sexually abused her, blackmail him for money to feed the girl and her invalid mother, and then seek to teach the girl how to work to surivie. When she can do this, they tell the priest his finances are no longer required. This compensation is not commensurate with a compensation for his crime, rather he is expected to take responsibility for something in which he has become complicit. The girl is poor, ugly and physically maimed with a hare-lip. She is a target. The priests money doesn’t do anything for the girl but keep her alive while she can learn to make her own money, for the girl is her own tragically lost cause. But when she was dying of starvation, the boys saw a need to intervene and keep her alive.

The Notebook is famously a commentary on war and the intergenerational damages it causes. Kristof creates a disturbing world when she takes children, the epitome of innocence, and places them as highly intelligent witnesses to death, suffering, inhumane cruelty, sexual abuse, bestiality and ethnic cleansing who are not only determined to act as historical document recording and reflecting all this horror, but are forced to engage with it all as well. The boys adopt a style of immediate critical judgement on their environment reduced to survival and they act with cold, indifferent reverence for it alone. At this level, the book is the clear and lucid portrayal of the “survival of the fittest” aesthetic famously misunderstood by a contemporary Western society as a justification for the petty machinations of the monied elite to get more money out of those poorer than them, rather portraying those at the margins of society as the most able to deal with its collapse – which is far more accurate. Kristof’s world is buried under the weight of a lack of moral structure and none of the previous systems survive.

Agota Kristof

Agota Kristof

However, underneath this devastating portrait is a counter-revolutionary engagement with the moral masthead of the boys. Despite the breakdown in society occurring around them, the boys rise up to inflict their own punishments on those they perceive to be behaving with malice. This results in the severest punishment for a person who might taunt a struggling chain gang of starving Jewish prisoners, while a request from a fetishist male living in their house for the young boys to piss on him is agreed to because they boys experience no harm from the man, and he is otherwise kind. In both cases of their observation of the adult behaviours, no attempt to understand contextually arises, they simply judge each behaviour as emblematic of a core moral position inside the adult they are engaged with. They can’t abide one human creature interfering with the right of another to exist, and it is this basic premise that forms the framework for their acts of retribution or friendly engagement. Neither is history a factor, for they will forgive a pedophilic priest who compensates his victim to help them survive, but they will maim a woman who has washed and cared for them when she spits on passing Jews.

Emotional detachment is not something the boys experience easily, and they work hard to perfect its observational quality in their life. They are immediately engaged with their environment, so their judgements might change with more knowledge, age and experience, but they still insist on acting from their current position when faced with the challenge of living in the world as it is. It was this coolly detached aesthetic that originally drew me to read The Notebook, as Slavoj Žižek singled out the book as emblematic of a moral code he himself wishes he could adopt – and I confess, I see his point and am attracted to the boy’s position in the same way:

This is where I stand, how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would have been a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.

Cold, cruel passion is the best way to describe the sparse, pared down words of Agota Kristof here, and an intensely obscene connection with the sensuality one uses to measure the world. It is a book I will not soon forget and one that I highly recommend.

You can grab a copy here.