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Tale of Love and Renewal

IN her first novel, "The Notebook" (1988), Agota Kristof told the harrowing story of twin brothers growing up in a rural border town in war-torn central Europe. Sent by their desperate mother to the relative "safety" of the country to live with their grandmother - a foul-smelling, evil-tempered old woman known in the town as the Witch - the boys set about acquiring the skills needed to survive in a dangerous environment. Here love, care, and safety are vanishing commodities.

Precociously intelligent and eerily attuned to each other, the twins teach themselves to read, write, beg, steal, blackmail, endure pain, repress their feelings, fight - even kill - when necessary. They keep a notebook in which they record what happens in prose as plain as the language of a bleak and frightening fairy tale: objective, matter-of-fact, deliberately shorn of passion, sentiment, and value judgments. And they witness a lot: from the mean-spirited bullying of the schoolyard to the monstrous cr uelty of people being rounded up for deportation, and the utter horror of their own mother and sister blown up by a shell before their very eyes. By the end of "The Notebook," one of the brothers has escaped over the border of their newly "liberated" land by literally walking over the dead body of his own father.

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"The Proof" is the story of the brother who remains behind. He is called Lucas; his twin (anagrammatically) is named Claus. Lucas's story henceforth is told in the third person (unlike the "we" of "The Notebook"), but in the same stark, devastatingly simple style that transforms the particular events of history - World War II, the Nazi invasion, the Russian "liberation," the postwar Communist state, the failed 1956 revolution - into a kind of parable transcending time and place.

Kristof, who fled her native Hungary for Switzerland at the time of the 1956 revolution, wrote both novels in French. But her vision and style seem closer in spirit to the German-language tradition of Kafka, Buchner, Siegfried Lenz, and Durrenmatt.

Both her novels deal with the dehumanizing effects of war and two forms of totalitarianism: "The Notebook" relentlessly exposes what the human spirit can be reduced to; "The Proof" demonstrates the human capacity for love and renewal. This is not to suggest that either novel is a heartwarming tale of innate goodness triumphing over adversity.

In "The Notebook," Agota questions the virtues of being a "survivor" by making us confront the harsh truth that those who survive violence and persecution may have done so at the cost of taking on some of the attributes of their persecutors. Lucas and Claus are a chilling pair. If, in "The Proof," we see Lucas's essential decency emerging in his postwar life - he looks after the town priest, who's become persona non grata under the new atheistic regime; he takes a young woman and her crippled son under h is roof - we also see how love itself can be fraught with danger.

Lucas cannot believe it when the priest thanks him for his love and goodness: He feels he has none. The priest is convinced Lucas is wrong: "You have suffered a wound from which you have not yet recovered," he tells him. Indeed, the love that develops between Lucas and the ugly, crippled little boy, Mathias, is the most moving aspect of the novel. The product of his mother's incestuous union with her father, Mathias turns out to be an exceptionally intelligent child, who insists on going to school. Lucas , who has been teaching him to read and draw pictures at home, can't understand this: He and his brother were only too glad to escape the tyranny of school and teach themselves at home.

When Mathias comes home from school bruised, beaten, and scarred, Lucas offers him "a sock filled with sand, a pointed stone, and a razor.... 'These were our weapons when we had to defend ourselves against the other children, he says. But if I had to inflict them on someone else, that would wound me in a way I couldn't bear.

But Lucas's love for Mathias cannot save the child from his feelings of shame and insecurity. To love is to expose oneself to the potential ravages of time and loss. Kristof's pair of novels show how the capacity for love can be stunted by war and hardship, but still grow back. She also goes beyond the political and other external forces that shape people's lives to explore the spiritual and psychological contradictions that can prevent people - under any political system - from achieving happiness.

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Kristof's deceptively simple style conveys a vision of considerable depth and complexity, a powerful portrait of the nobility and perversity of the human heart.

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