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My Thursday Readers and I just finished our discussion of Agota Kristof’s triple novel, “The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie: Three Novels.” It is a challenging book, demanding all our reading skills and rewarding because together we had them to employ. We have long ago dispensed with the notion of liking or not liking a book as a criterion for measuring its value, and that is probably a good thing. Kristof’s novels are not exactly likable, but we can attest to their value in terms of ideas and development of ideas.

The Notebook

Reading “The Notebook,” with its vivid description of Hungarian twins who as 9-year-olds get left with their grandmother because their father has been sent to the front lines in World War II and their mother can no longer feed them, we got caught up in the story. Like Hansel and Gretel, they, too, are dispatched with a sandwich in the shape of a suitcase containing their clothes. They are not welcomed in their grandmother’s house, yet they seem quite content making a life for themselves within and without her domain.

Grandmother is illiterate and wary of authority, so the twins get away with their refusal to attend school. They have a copy of the Bible and a dictionary, and they write compositions describing what they see, hear and do. They train for surviving the war by starving themselves and beating up on one another to practice their endurance of pain, and they steal, lie and blackmail to do what they consider “absolutely necessary.”

On that premise, they threaten the local priest, who has sexually abused a cleft-lipped girl, and make him pay for his offenses. At his own request, they lash up on their grandmother’s lodger, a Hungarian army officer who derives sexual satisfaction from pain. They punish a housekeeper who eats a piece of bread in front of a starving Jewish prisoner on her way to a camp by making her stove blow up in her face due to their implanted explosives. Such actions of “absolute necessity” occur till the end of the novel, when one of them follows in their father’s footsteps, crossing the border illegally. They know that one way to get across is to make “someone else go first” and be captured in the process.

The Proof

“The Proof” deals with the time after World War II and into the 1950s and 1960s. The narrator for most of the book is the twin Lucas, who speaks in the first person singular, tracing his adulthood under the Soviets and his housing a woman and her son sired by her own father. He speaks in the same bland, disassociated voice of “The Notebook,” yet his love of the boy, Mathias, is evident throughout, as is his grief at the boy’s suicide. At the end of the novel, although not immediately obvious, the identity of the narrator becomes ambiguous. The voice of Lucas observes the return of Claus from the other country, 20 years after Lucas has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. So, we wonder, who is narrating the story? Is it Lucas masquerading as Claus? Or have we all along been dealing with just one person imagining the other in a yearning for lost family?

The Third Lie

The last novel of the three is narrated by Claus, who has been detained in the country of his birth because his visa has lapsed. His detention is quite endurable, as he is given plenty of food, wine and cigarettes. But he has a heart problem and a limp derived from a childhood illness. Both suggest he is really Lucas, the name we now notice is an anagram of “Claus.” There are scraps of this new story that can be reconciled with what has gone before, and we keep reading and wondering what exactly Kristof is wanting us to learn. Her account of Lucas’ vicious cruelty to other children in the hospital and the general lack of concern for others paint a savage image of Europe in the 20th century. As one critic put it, we can try to put together a coherent narrative, only we would miss Kristof’s point that “in the savagery of Europe’s 20th century, truth and lies are indistinguishable, and history just depends on who is telling it at any point in time. Personal histories are rewritten alongside historical revisionism.”

• Inga Wiehl is a writer and retired Yakima Valley College English professor. She has a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at the universities of Utah and Texas. She has written four nonfiction books and writes about books for SCENE in an occasional column.

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