The Notebook: On the Other Side of Life

A review of the novel The Notebook by Agota Kristof

By Mahmoud Abdel Shakour

Translated by Mona Khattab

Some novels transform the ordinary into the extraordinary through their deceptive simplicity. In order to achieve this multiple effect and incite readers to contemplate otherwise fleeting issues, this simplicity hides grave depths.

Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, translated into Arabic by the Moroccan Mohamed Ayet Hana and published by Al-Gamal publications, falls under the previously mentioned genre. The novel is made up of memories of the war years and its aftermath; simple human details that sometimes even seem trivial. The novel gives titles rather than names to its characters. It doesn’t describe the war itself but deals with its aftermath on a small marginal village. Kristof, a Hungarian who lived in Switzerland and wrote in French, cannot remember the name of the war she is writing about. However, we will discover which war she means as we read on the facts and details.

Another remarkable and important feature of the book is the first person narration of the story. The narrator is not one but two persons, twin boys who were forced to live with their strict grandmother and had to get used to her harshness along with the war tragedy. The narrator here is two voices in one, as if the tragedy is double, and the witness is split into two. Upon learning, with much surprise and shock, what has happened to the two boys, and what they did, we can describe the novel as having “an appalling depth that seeps from underneath a guise of simplicity.”

Agota Kristof was born in Hungary in 1935 and immigrated to Switzerland at the age of 20. She didn’t speak French at the time but later learned the language and wrote all her works in French. She clearly suffered a lot in her life which is partly reflected in her novels. Although she led the harsh life of a worker in Switzerland, she turned out to be an amazing and talented writer. She is very skillful in minimalistic description and narration, and in creating fully-rounded images without unnecessary wordiness. The Notebook is a testament to her exceptional skills in this area.

The novel is based on the twins’ memories of their lives in a border village, their miserable mother who leaves her husband, a war correspondent. They all lived together but the incessant shelling, lack of rations and difficult living conditions forced the mother to send the twins to lead a safer life with their grandmother.

The grandmother’s harshness becomes clear from the very first lines of the novel with her callous statements and daunting appearance. She constantly reminds the twins how their mother moved to the city to be with her lover. Later on, the grandmother will come to resemble a scary monster inside out: with her dirty clothes, toothless mouth, miserliness, aggressiveness and bad reputation as the wife who poisoned her husband (the twins’ grandfather) but without evidence to confirm this allegation.

The twins narrate what happened to them in the house of their grandmother who lived off selling vegetables that she cultivated and processed, sold even the clothes and furniture the mother left to her twins, and kept what little money was sent by the mother from the city.

What’s remarkable about those memories are the nameless characters; we have twins, a mother, an old grandmother, a rabbit-snout-like girl, a priest, a priest’s maid, an enemy officer and his assistant soldier, and a girl referred to as cousin, etc.  The father appears at the end of the novel, also nameless. Here we are facing models of human beings that transcend the idea of a specific name; as if Kristof only wants the reader to ponder human beings, their actions and their exotic lives. The names of people or places do not matter. More important is the reality which reflect the lives of people during wartime and under aircraft and artillery bombardment.

It is also interesting that, from the very first moments, the twins reveal tremendous inner strength that helps them survive. They create their own means to be able to endure the humiliation of begging and hardships such as hunger and thirst. They invent means to monitor their grandmother, get books and save time to study together as well. It is surprising that these ideas can come from such youngsters, but the lesson here is that war and harsh life create different types of human beings. The innocence of childhood is replaced with young monsters who defend their lives and presence amid a war, or life in the ill-fated grandmother’s house who wages a daily war on them (snaps) and calls them only by: “Sons of a bitch.”

The boys get used to insults; they are impervious to them. They discover life through strange models of people. They encounter death at an early age in the body of a soldier whom they disarm of weapon and ammunition. The characters we encounter though the eyes of the twins are highly distorted: the sensual snout-rabbit-like girl and her mother who, as we discover later, pretends to be deaf and blind. Then there is the homosexual enemy officer who rents a room in the grandmother’s house and the simple cobbler who donates shoes to the twins in apparent reprisal for being a Jew who awaits death at any moment. There is also the alleged cousin whom the grandmother agreed to hide in her house in exchange for a jewelry bag, and a lustful priest maid who also exploits the boys sexually. Theirs is a turbulent life in a village inhabited by poverty and fear. How can two bright boys live with an old grandmother who poisoned their grandfather years ago?

It is a simple but very painful image because we read the memories of children who have no childhood and hear about the aftermath of war in a region that is supposed to be safe and in a manner that is uglier than the war itself. The image is ugly because you never know exactly whether these characters are ugly because they are part of the war; or if the war is ugly because it produced such characters that are forced to fight for their survival and are driven by instinct, reflecting the worst of human traits, such as greed, cruelty, ruggedness and the proneness for violence and revenge.

Underneath the flowing narrative and the titled chapters lies a human tragedy, not only a tragedy of humanity, but also of death that acquires free and satirical forms sometimes. Death happens simply whether by the poisoning of the grandfather; the killing of the priest’s maid using the dead soldier’s ammunition; the death of the rabbit-snout-like girl out of pleasure after her sexual intercourse with the victorious soldiers; the death of the mother by a shell when she returned to take her twins who cold-bloodedly bury her remains; the absurd death of the father who, while trying to escape after the war, stepped on a mine that exploded on the border; or the death of the grandmother after a long coma.

Although we are far removed from the battlefield, war in the novel is the absolute evil. Its aftermath is devastating despite the end of the bombing and killing. The enemy left the country to other foreign occupiers. There is a national government but it succumbs to the victorious. There are fences and barbed wires to prevent infiltrators. Its curse never ends, as the novel closes with one of the boys trying to escape while the other stays in the grandmother’s house.

Essentially, The Notebook is a novel about the bad side of life that appears during wartime. It is also about the human ability to adapt in spite of everything. Under different circumstances, the twins could have been scientists but they experienced bleak life at an early age. They used to sing and perform plays for a living, but they will also kill, plunder and steal. They will find themselves in the grandmother’s house, not in the city, that’s why they will turn down their mother’s plea to return with her.

The main characters in Charles Dickens’ novels Oliver Twist and David Copperfield led harsh lives that were imposed upon them. However, Agota Kristof’s twins have a very conscious will to return the cruelty back to life. The twins’ practices, as narrated by Kristof, announce a philosophy that meets ugliness with ugliness, learns humiliation and chooses inner strength as a means of perseverance, revealing an inner cruelty versus the external one exemplified in the grandmother and the war.

It is certainly shocking the cruelty human beings are capable of. However, we can only mourn for such humans. We wish that there had been more than one priest, the village might have been in better conditions. The Notebook is a rich human experience with a touch of absurdity where the curse is inherited from the grandmother to the mother to the twins. Agota Kristof opens a window on a completely realistic world, similar to worlds we see anywhere during wartime. She does not beautify the picture, she presents it as is. Through the characters and their lives, she shows that ugliness is found not only during war, but it originally lies within us, and we recall it, and it comes back with all its deadly weapons.