Wow…is all I can say about The Notebook by Agota Kristof. This is one of the more disquieting books I’ve read but it’s also impossible to put down. It’s the notebook of two nameless young twin brothers somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime at the end of the Second World War. Calmly and unsentimentally, the boys tell us what war does to people. It’s not a pretty story but it leaves an indelible impression.
As the book opens, the boys are deposited with their grandmother in the countryside by their mother. Bombs are raining down over the Big Town, it has become too dangerous. Grandmother is not the cosy figure you might expect:
We call her Grandmother.
People call her the Witch. She calls us ‘sons of a bitch’. […]
Her face is covered with wrinkles, brown spots, and warts that sprout hairs. She has no teeth left, at least none that can be seen.
The boys, both extremely intelligent, start to ‘train’ for surviving the war. They train for hunger, not eating for days on end. They train for pain, beating each other up, putting their hands over a flame, for insults and to kill.
It’s a harrowing portrayal of ethics crumbling. Within the new moral codes, which all the adults around them seem to have adapted, the boys are behaving ethically but with perverse results. Such as when the neighbour asks them to set her house on fire while she’s in the house.
‘But you’ll suffer terribly.’
‘Don’t worry about that. Just set the fire, if you’re capable of it.’
‘Yes, madam, we are capable of it. You can depend on us.’
It’s not for the faint-hearted this book, but if you’re up for it, The Notebook is a book that you’ll remember years from now.
The Notebook by Agota Kristof is published by CB Editions, 174 pages.