Each book of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy is entwined on a smaller scale in each of the books, echoing back the whole of the trilogy. Each successive book unbalances its predecessor to the point that its instability opens up an unbounded dialogism. As I read each book back to back I cannot imagine reading first The Notebook, The Proof two years later, and finally waiting a further three years to read The Third Lie. My aesthetic response would be somewhat muted.
By starting the trilogy with the simple, direct language of childhood, Kristóf disrupts our familiar frames of reference, so when the shocks arrive they have the power of a slap in the face, the visceral response precedes the intellectual. Although the language remains clear throughout the three books, its complexity increases as the protagonists mature and the paradoxes become evident. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.”
The nature of evil is less absurdly simple than history or psychology suggests. The torturer can also be a loving grandfather. Compassion and immorality can exist side by side, as they do with Kristóf’s protagonists.
As is often the case, Michelle’s post led me to the trilogy, which sat on my shelves for some years. Although I read an edition from Grove Press, I suggest these from CB editions. Though the translators are the same, the Grove Press edition of The Notebook Americanises the language: so and so write one another, and the two protagonists are at one point called ‘you two punks.’ Tim Parks writes so well about the inflexibility of American editors. It jars the reading to the point I almost abandoned the book.
I really agree with you about the impossibility of reading these books with any distance between them. Someone gave me the first one, which I read, and I ran out and bought the next two so I could read them in quick succession.
And I very much like your point about compassion and evil co-existing – this strikes me as innately human, and something we very often try to psychologize away or ignore. I think this is why I would use the word “unflinching” to describe Kristof’s work. There is a horrific honesty to her story that goes beyond the wartime setting.
Yes, I know our media are really only capable of binaries. You are either wholly good or entirely evil, a trap so many fiction writers also fall into, so very refreshing, even sobering to see greater complexity.
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