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Friday, October 8, 2010

"The Notebook" by Agota Kristof (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Agota Kristof at Wikipedia
Order the Trilogy (The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie) HERE
Read from The Notebook on Google Books

INTRODUCTION: Recently, a copy of Agota Kristof's trilogy found its way to me and on opening it, I was just blown away by the first several pages. The trilogy contains one short novel that should be a "new classic" of our times - ok the late 1980's when it was first published. This is The Notebook which is just mind blowing and utterly original - very dark, graphic and explicit so not for everyone but awesome nonetheless and I found myself alternately laughing out loud and being quite shocked by its twin boys' narration.

The Proof that directly continues The Notebook and The Third Lie that reinterprets all that came before are excellent too, but they are a bit superfluous and The Notebook should have been left on its own. The other two novels are more conventional with stuff we have seen before - still dark and occasionally explicit - and they cannot help but lessen the impact of The Notebook since
the stark - short sentences, short chapters - structure of The Notebook as it befits its children POV(s) is just un-replicable in more common tales like the next two.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: In the easily available 1997 Grove Press English edition linked above that contains all three novels, The Notebook takes the first 185 pages or so out of a total of some 480. It is divided into 64 short chapters, each written in very short but precise sentences by the twin boy narrators. The chapter titles are descriptive: "Arrival at Grandmother's", "Our Chores", "Exercise to Toughen the Mind","Exercise in Begging", just to give some of the most memorable ones but each name is quite important in what follows.

And for completeness, I will add that the following books change structure considerably, with The Proof that immediately follows the events in The Notebook, divided into eight numbered parts with third person narration from essentially one POV, while The Third Lie is divided into two parts, each narrated by one character.

The Notebook is another novel that is hard to classify; on its surface it is a tale of survival among the horrors of total war, but it is much more than that, being also a novel of discovery as the boys try to make sense of the "grown-up world" that seems to have gone mad around them.

Note: The Notebook has been translated from French by Alan Sheridan, The Proof by David Watson and The Third Lie by Marc Romano.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Notebook takes place in an unnamed Little Town on the border with "our side" where the twin narrators are brought to "Grandmother's House" by Mother from Big Town to escape the daily bombardments and the shortages. It is easy to place names and dates (eg Big Town is Budapest, the border is with Austria and so on), but the intended vagueness in names and places work better in reinforcing the universal themes of the novel. The use of capitalized common words for names: "The Postman", "The Cobbler"... also adds to the authenticity of the children's POV narration and is another great touch.

"We start writing. We have two hours to deal with the subject and two sheets of paper at our disposal.
At the end of two hours we exchange our sheets of paper. Each of us corrects the other's spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: "Good" or "Not good." If it's "Not good," we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it's "Good," we can copy the composition into the notebook. To decide whether it's "Good" or "Not good," we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
For example, it is forbidden to write, "Grandmother is like a witch"; but we are allowed to write, "People call Grandmother the Witch.
It is forbidden to write, "The Little Town is beautiful," because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.
Similarly, if we write, "The orderly is nice," this isn't a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, "The orderly has given us some blankets." We would write, "We eat a lot of walnuts," and not "We love walnuts," because the word "love" is not a reliable word, it lacks precision and objectivity. "To love walnuts" and "to love Mother" don't mean the same thing. The first expression designates a pleasant taste in the mouth, the second a feeling.
Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.""

The excerpt above which is more than half of the chapter "Our Studies" is in some ways the "heart of the novel" and it both gives a clear example of its style and of its theme with detachment and "distant analysis" being the mode of protection our heroes adopt in the face of the mad world. Though the extract is quite benign, considering the darker happenings in other parts of the novel and the explicitness that may shock readers - explicitness that is described factually as being what the narrators see, without comments or interpretations. Or maybe this matter of fact acceptance is what's shocking.

Slowly the boys develop a "moral sense" that guides their actions and which is quite rational considering what's going on around them and that is another of the elements that elevate The Notebook beyond its original story. There is action and there are moments that will chill, thrill or shock you, but the novel is darkly funny most of the time despite its content. While it has a seemingly small and remote location, The Notebook is peopled by quite a few distinctive characters whose interactions with the narrators range from mundane to weird. Grandmother, The Priest, The Orderly, Harelip and The Housekeeper are the ones that stuck most in my memory. The ending is perfect and while the story continues in the next two books, that was not really necessary.

The Notebook (A++) is one of the most powerful and unusual novels of contemporary literature.



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