This book has been chosen as a Great Read.

Author: Agota Kristof, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, David Watson, and Marc Romano

Grove/Atlantic, 1997

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There’s an old adage that says history is written by the victors. And another that says war leaves no winners. In her dark trilogy set in a world clearly modeled after post World War II Europe, Agota Kristof questions the realities of war, and puts forth that war leaves behind no truth. These three novels (about 150 pages apiece) vary in style, but build thematically on each other to build a harrowing allegory of war and humanity. The writing is excellent, and the deep emotional ties between twins Lucas and Claus that stretch yet never sever over a lifetime make for compelling narrative. This is the sort of literature that is linguistically accessible and emotionally threatening, with a rewarding end result that leaves readers affected greatly.

The first entry, The Notebook, is also the only one that breaks traditional form. It is written in short one to three page chapters and narrated by both twins in the first person plural. Abandoned to live with their cruel grandmother in a small border town, the twins become resourceful and hardened, learning to rely only upon each other to survive. The town has branded their murderous caretaker a witch, and the exile this causes is magnified by the unforgiving and violent world in which they live. It is a world where the next day is an uncertainty, and humanity wanes:

Two or three hundred of them pass by, flanked by soldiers. A few women are carrying small children on their backs, or cradled against their breasts. One of them falls; hands reach out to catch the child and the mother; they must be carried, because a soldier has already pointed his rifle at them.

No one speaks, no one cries; their eyes are fixed on the ground. The only sound is the noise of the soldiers’ hobnail boots.

The Proof follows Lucas’s life after Claus escapes across the border to the enemy’s country. His life is difficult to say the least, and the book is as cruel and grim as the first. Lucas is one of the most interesting characters I’ve read in a very long time, an outré man both compassionate and pitiless. At fifteen he takes in a woman and her incestuous crippled son, and cares for them as if they were his family. Yet Lucas’s motives are never selfless. His emotional scars show all the way to the surface, and it is hard not to become completely immersed in his eccentricity.

He takes his harmonica out of his pocket and starts to play a sad song, a song about love and separation.

Lucas fastidiously keeps a notebook (a practice he began with Claus in a search for truth amid the lies around them, and presumedly the contents of the first novel) of everything in his life, intended to keep Claus from missing a single thing upon their reunion. It also serves to establish proof of existence for both brothers, who don’t exist in government records due to their unsanctioned upbringing.

The Third Lie is downright heartrending. Much of the reality of the first entries is called into question as Lucas and Claus look to attach truth to their lives and ideas of self while longing for their impossible reunion as a single entity. Some characters and scenes from the previous entries begin to morph and meld together, and the twins’ efforts to define their lives transform a tale of war and failing humanity to something greater. Says Claus:

I answer that I try to write true stories but that at a given point the story becomes unbearable because of its very truth, and then I have to change it. I tell her that I try to tell my story but all of a sudden I can’t–I don’t have the courage, it hurts too much. And so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened.

She says, “ Yes. There are lives sadder than the saddest of books.”

I say, “Yes. No book, no matter how sad, can be as sad as life.”

Kristof’s trilogy ends as it begins: truly sad and sinister. But beneath it all there is thin warmth in the assurance that the strongest bonds can never be broken, though the wounds of war are clear:

I go to bed and before falling asleep I talk to Lucas in my head the way I have for many years. What I tell him is just about what I usually do. I tell him that if he’s dead he’s lucky and I’d very much like to be in his place. I tell him that he got the better deal, that it is I who is pulling the greater weight. I tell him that life is totally useless, that it’s nonsense, an aberration, infinite suffering, the invention on a non-God whose evil surpasses understanding.

The ultimate confrontation between the brothers is hard to bear but understandably necessary. Like Lucas’s harmonica song, this trilogy is a sad story, a story about love and separation. Sometimes the saddest stories are the best though, as sadness can speak volumes. Anyone looking for a great piece of literature with complex themes and characterization and isn’t put of by a little gloom and violence and despair should definitely read it.

(A side note to dorks like me out there: this trilogy served as the inspiration for Shigesato Itoi’s third Mother game. The game draws heavily from these books, and is a great example of how excellent narration, drama, and character development are not the property of literature alone.)

Similar Books: The Trilogy: Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnamable (Beckett), Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee), The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (Babel), Malina (Bachmann)