THE NOTEBOOK by Agota Kristof


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Born in Hungary, writing in French, first-novelist Kristof offers--in 60 tiny, bullet-like chapters--an impassive, Brechtian montage of wartime horror: the bleak, present-tense diary of little twin brothers who record the passing nightmares in a single, flat voice. The ""Big Town"" (Budapest, perhaps) is being bombed. So the twin boys are, for safety's sake, sent by Mother to live in the country with their grandmother--despite the tact that she's a filthy, cruel, bestial alcoholic who murdered her husband. The twins, previously pampered, are now suddenly forced to live in cold and stench, fear and misery, fending for themselves and facing up to such realities as a dead soldier's corpse in the woods. Their reaction is to develop the thick skin of a Mother Courage, to toughen their minds and bodies with masochistic exercises, to numb themselves to emotions. So, increasingly impervious to sentiment, the twins matter-of-factly observe, endure, or take part in one degradation after another: blackmailing the local priest (a child-molester); submitting to the lust of the priest's housekeeper; catering to the sexual kinks (whips and worse) of a ""foreign officer""; witnessing the invaders' roundup of Jews and the townsfolk's callous acquiescence. (The twins quietly assassinate the most sadistic onlooker.) And ""liberation"" at war's end brings the worst moments of all: rape, suicides, a brief but grisly reunion with Mother. . .and a vivid final tableau involving parricide, opportunism, and the twins' ultimate separation. With a deliberate avoidance of all specific place-names and nationalities, this WW II scenario strives for universality--sometimes effectively, sometimes with precious (or slightly confusing) results. The theme and style, so nakedly derivative, are insisted upon a bit too heavy-handedly. Yet many of Kristof's stark vignettes, reported in unflinching detail by the serenely shell-shocked twins, have a cool, disturbing power--part documentary-like, part surreal--that is fierce and distinctive.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1988
Publisher: Grove