the opening chapters of agota kristof’s yesterday

 

Ágota Kristóf is an Hungarian writer, who lives in Switzerland and writes in French.

Kristof was born on October 30, 1935. At the age of 21 she had to leave her country when the Hungarian anti-communist revolution was suppressed by the Soviet military. She, her husband (who used to be her history teacher at school) and their 4 month-old daughter escaped to Neuchâtel in Switzerland. After 5 years of loneliness and exile, she quit her work in a factory and left her husband. She started studying French and began to write novels in that language.

In 1986 Kristof’s first novel, The Notebook, appeared. It was the beginning of a moving trilogy. The sequel titled The Proof came 2 years later. The third part was published in 1991 under the title The Third Lie. The most important themes of this trilogy are war and destruction, love and loneliness, desire and loss, truth and fiction. In 1995 she published the short novel, Yesterday.

The video game Mother 3 was influenced by The Notebook‘s major themes. Main characters Lucas and Claus are named after the book’s narrators.

—pulled from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agota_Kristof; see also http://www.europeanliteraryimmigration.com/agota_kristof.html.


There’s something Nabokovian about Kristof’s background: a native of Hungary, she lives in Switzerland  and writes in French. Yesterday examines the fractured history of the “New Europe” and shows how political faultlines crack their way into the pysches of history’s victims.  

 



Yesterday everything was more beautiful

the music in the trees

the wind in my hair

and in your outstretched hands

the sun

 


Escape

 

Yesterday, a familiar wind was blowing. A wind I had come across before.

 

Spring had come early. I was walking in the wind with a brisk, determined step, as every morning. Yet I wanted to go back to my bed and lie there, motionless, without thoughts, without desires, lie there until the moment when I felt the presence of that thing which is not voice, taste or smell, simply a very vague memory, something from beyond the borders of memory.

 

Slowly, the door opened and in a moment of terror my dangling hands felt the soft, silky fur of the tiger.

 

‘Music,’ it said. ‘Play something! On the violin or the piano. Preferably the piano. Play!’

 

‘I don’t know how,’ I said. ‘I’ve never played the piano in my whole life, I don’t have a piano, I’ve never had one.’

 

‘In your whole life? Nonsense! Go to the window and play!’

 

Outside my window there was a forest. I saw the birds gathering on the branches to listen to me playing. I saw the birds. Their little heads tilted and their staring eyes looking right through me.

 

My music grew louder and louder. It became unbearable.

 

A dead bird fell from a branch.

 

The music stopped.

 

I turned round.

 

The tiger sat in the middle of the room, smiling.

 

‘That’s enough for today,’ it said. ‘You should practise more often.’

 

‘Yes, I promise I will practise. But I’m expecting visitors, you see, if you don’t mind. They, these people, might find it strange, you being here, in my house.’

 

‘Of course,’ it said with a yawn.

 

It wentout with a supple stride and I doublelocked the door behind it.

 

‘See you again,’ it called out as it left.

 

 

 

 

Line was waiting for me at the factory entrance, leaning against the wall. She looked so pale and sad that I decided to stop and talk to her. However, I walked past her, not even turning my head in her direction.

 

A short while later, after I had started up my machine, she stood next to me.

 

‘You know, it’s strange. I’ve never seen you laugh. I’ve known you for years. In all the years I’ve known you, I haven’t seen you laugh once.’

 

I looked at her and burst out laughing.

 

‘I’d rather you didn’t do that,’ she said.

 

At that moment I felt a stab of anxiety and I leaned over to the window to see whether the wind was still there. The movement of the trees reassured me.

 

When I turned round, Line had gone. Then I spoke to her:

 

‘Line, I love you. I really love you, Line, but I don’t have time to think about that, there are so many things I have to think about, this wind, for example, I have to go out now and walk in the wind. Not with you, Line, don’t be angry. Walking in the wind is something you have to do alone, because there is a tiger and a piano whose music kills birds, and only the wind can banish the fear, it’s a well-known fact, I’ve been aware of it for a long time.’

 

The machines rang out the Angelus all around me.

 

I walked along the corridor. The door was open.

 

This door was always open and I had never tried to leave by this door.

 

Why?

 

 

 

 

The wind swept the streets. These empty streets seemed strange to me. I had never seen them on a weekday morning.

 

Later, I sat down on a stone bench and cried.

 

In the afternoon, the sun came out. There were small clouds scurrying across the sky and it was very mild.

I went into a café, I was hungry. The waiter placed a plate of sandwiches in front of me.

 

I said to myself:

 

‘Now you must go back to the factory. You must go hack, you have no reason for being off work. Yes, now I will go back.’

 

I started crying again and I noticed that I had eaten all the sandwiches.

 

I took the bus to save time. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. I could put in another two and a half hours’ work.

 

The sky clouded over.

 

When the bus went past the factory, the conductor looked at me. Further on, he tapped me on the shoulder.

 

‘End of the line, sir.’

 

The place where I got off was a sort of park. Trees, a few houses. It was already dark when I went into the forest.

 

Now the rain was getting heavy, it was mixed with snow. The wind was lashing my face. But it was him, the same wind.

 

I walked, faster and faster, towards a summit.

 

I closed my eyes. I couldn’t see anything in any case. With each step I bumped into a tree. ‘Water!’

 

Way above me, someone had called out.

 

It was ridiculous, there was water everywhere.

 

I, too, was thirsty. I threw my head back, spread my arms and let myself fall. I shoved my face into the cold mud and I didn’t move.

 

That’s how I died.

 

Soon my body mingled with the earth.


Of course, I didn’t die. A walker found me lying in the mud, in the middle of the forest. He called an ambulance, I was taken to hospital. I wasn’t even frozen, just soaked through. I had slept one night in the forest and that’s all.

 

No, I wasn’t dead, I merely had a bout of pneumonia that was nearly fatal. I had to stay in hospital for six weeks. Once my lung condition had been cured, I was transferred to the psychiatric wing, because I had tried to kill myself.

 

I was happy to stay in hospital, because I didn’t want to go back to the factory. I was fine here, I was looked after, I could sleep. At mealtimes I had a choice of several different menus. I could even smoke iii the small sitting room. I could also smoke when I wits talking with the doctor.

 

‘You can’t write your own death.’

 

The psychiatrist said this to me, and I agreed with him, because, when you are dead, you can’t write. hut in myself I think that I can write anything, even of it is impossible and even if it is not true.

 

Usually, I am happy to write in my head. It’s easier. In your head there are no difficulties to get in the way. But, as soon as you write anything down, the thoughts change, become distorted, and everything turns out false. Because of words.

 

The trouble is, I don’t write what I ought to write, I write just anything, things that no one can understand and that I don’t understand myself. In the evening, when I copy out what I have written in my head all day long, I wonder why I wrote all that. For whom and for what reason?

 

 

 

 

The psychiatrist asks me:

 

‘Who is Line?’

 

‘I made Line up. She doesn’t exist.’ ‘The tiger, the piano, the birds?’

 

‘Nightmares, that’s all.’

 

‘Did you try to kill yourself because of your nightmares?’

 

‘If I had really tried to kill myself, I would already be dead. I only wanted to rest. I couldn’t go on living like that, the factory and everything else, Line’s absence, the absence of hope. Getting up at five in the morning, walking, running down the street to catch the bus, the forty-minute journey, arriving at the fourth village, going inside the factory. Rushing to pull on the grey overall, getting through the crush to clock in, running to your machine, starting it up, drilling the hole as quickly as possible, drilling, drilling, always the same hole in the same part, ten thousand times a day, if possible, our salaries depend on our workrate, our lives.’

 

The doctor says:

 

‘That’s the working man’s life. Be thankful you have a job. Lots of people are unemployed. As for Line … There’s a pretty young blonde girl who comes to see you every day. Why couldn’t her name be Line?’

 

‘Because she is Yolande and she will never be called Line. She isn’t Line, she is Yolande. It’s a stupid name, isn’t it? And she is just as stupid as her name. Her dyed blonde hair gathered up on top of her head, lier nails painted pink, as long as claws, her ten-centimetre-high stilettos. Yolande is small, very small, so she wears shoes with ten-centimetre heels and has a ridiculous hairstyle.’

 

The doctor laughs:

 

‘So why do you go on seeing her?’

 

‘Because I don’t have anyone else. And because I don’t want to change. I once changed a lot and I am tired of it. Anyway, what difference does it make, one Yolande or another? I go to her place once a week. She cooks and I bring the wine. We’re not in love.’

 

The doctor says:

 

‘Perhaps not as far as you’re concerned. But do you know what her feelings are?’

 

‘I don’t want to know. I’m not interested in her feelings. I’ll go on seeing her until Line arrives.’

 

‘You still believe she will?’

 

‘Definitely. I know she exists somewhere. I’ve always known that I came into this world only to meet her. And her, too. She came into this world only to meet me. She is called Line, she is my wife, my love, my life. I have never seen her.’

 

 

 

 

I met Yolande when I was buying some socks. Black ones, grey ones, white tennis socks. I don’t play tennis.

 

The first time I saw Yolande, I thought she was very beautiful. Graceful. She tilted her head as she handed over the socks, she smiled, she was almost dancing.

 

I paid for the socks, I asked her: ‘Can I see you some time?’

 

She gave a silly laugh, but I didn’t care about her silliness. I only cared about her body.

 

‘Wait for me in the café over the road. I get off at five.’

 

I bought a bottle of wine, then I waited in the café over the road with my socks in a plastic bag.

 

Yolande arrived. We had a coffee, then we went to her place.

 

She’s a good cook.

 

Yolande might seem prettier to someone who hasn’t seen her first thing in the morning.

 

Then she is nothing but a little crumpled thing, her hair hangs down, her make-up is a mess, she has large rings of kohl around her eyes.

 

I watch her as she goes into the shower, her legs are thin, she has hardly any buttocks or breasts.

 

She is in the bathroom for at least an hour. When she comes out she is the fresh and pretty Yolande again, well groomed, well made-up, perched on her ten-centimetre heels. Smiling. Laughing in her stupid way.

 

Usually, I go back home late on Saturday evening, but sometimes I stay over until Sunday morning. On those occasions, I also have breakfast with her.

 

She goes to get some croissants at the baker’s, which is open on Sundays, twenty minutes’ walk from her place. She makes some coffee.

 

We eat. Then I go home.

 

What does Yolande do on Sunday after I leave? I don’t know. I’ve never asked her.


 

The Lie

 

Of all my lies, the funniest one was when I told you how much I wanted to see my country again.

 

Your eyelids fluttered, you were moved, and you cleared your throat as you sought the words to comfort me and show me you understood. You didn’t dare laugh all evening. It was worth telling you the story just for that.

 

When I got home, I switched on the lamps in all the rooms and I stood in front of the mirror. I looked at myself until my image became blurred and unrecognisable.

 

For hours I walked around my bedroom. My books lay lifeless on the table and the shelves, my bed was cold, too neat, I had no thoughts of going to bed.

 

Dawn approached and the windows of the houses opposite were all dark.

 

I checked several times that the door was closed, then I tried to think about you to help me sleep but you were nothing but a grey, fleeting image like my other memories.

 

Like the dark mountains I crossed one winter night, like the bedroom in the dilapidated farm where I woke up one morning, like the modern factory where I have worked for ten years, like an overfamiliar landscape you no longer want to look at.

 

Soon there was nothing left to think about, only the things I didn’t want to think about. I would have liked to cry a little but I couldn’t, for I didn’t have any reason to do so.

 


The doctor asks me:

 

“Why did you choose the name “Line” for the woman you are waiting for?’

 

I say:

 

‘Because my mother was called Line and I loved her very much. I was ten when she died.’

 

He says:

 

‘Tell me about your childhood.’

 

I was waiting for that one. My childhood! Everyone is interested in my childhood.

 

I dealt with his stupid questions quite well. I had my childhood worked out ready for every occasion, my lie was in good working order. I have already employed it several times. I have told it to Yolande, to my small handful of friends and acquaintances, and I will tell the same story to Line.

 

I am a war orphan. My parents were killed in the air-raids. I am the only survivor from my family. I have, no brothers or sisters.

 

I was brought up in an orphanage, like so many other children at that time. At the age of twelve, I ran away from the orphanage, I crossed the frontier.

 

That’s all.

 

‘That’s all?’

 

‘Yes, that’s all.’

 

I am certainly not going to tell him about my real childhood!

 

 

 

 

I was born in a nameless village in an insignificant country.

 

My mother, Esther, begged in the village, she also slept with men, peasants who gave her flour, grain, milk. She also stole fruit and vegetables from fields arid gardens, sometimes even a chicken or duckling from a farmyard.

 

When the peasants slaughtered a pig they would keep the offcuts for my mother, the tripe and stuff like that, whatever the villagers didn’t want to eat.

 

For us, everything was good.

 

My mother was the thief, beggar and whore of the village.

 

I sat outside the house, I played with the clay, I moulded it, I made huge phalluses, breasts, buttocks. I also sculpted my mother’s body in the red clay and made holes in it with my tiny fingers: the mouth, the nose, the eyes, the ears, the sex, the anus, the navel.

 

My mother was full of holes, like our house, my clothes, my shoes. I stuffed the holes in my shoes with mud.

 

I lived in the yard.

 

When I felt hungry, or tired, or cold, I went into the house, I found something to eat, grilled potatoes, cooked grain, milk curds, sometimes some bread, and I lay down on the mattress next to the stove.

 

Most of the time the bedroom door was open to allow the heat from the kitchen to spread through. I saw and heard everything that went on.

 

My mother came into the kitchen to wash her behind in a bucket, wiped herself with an old rag, went back to sleep. She hardly ever talked to me and she never kissed me.

 

The most surprising thing was that I was an only child. I still wonder how my mother managed to get rid of her other pregnancies and why she ‘kept’ me. Perhaps I was her first ‘accident’. There are only seventeen years between us. Perhaps she then learned what she had to do to avoid being burdened with kids and to survive.

 

I remember that she would sometimes stay in bed for several days at a time and all her old rags would he saturated with blood.

 

Of course, I wasn’t bothered by any of this. I can even say that I had a happy childhood, since I didn’t know that childhood could be any different.

 

I never went to the village. We lived next to the cemetery, in the last street in the village, in the last house. I was happy playing in the yard, in the mud. Sometimes the sky was clear, but I loved the wind, the rain, the clouds. The rain stuck my hair to my forehead, to my neck, in my eyes. The wind dried my hair, stroked my face. The monsters hiding in the clouds told me about far-away lands.

 

It was harder in winter. I also loved the snowflakes, hut I didn’t stay outside long. I didn’t have clothes which were warm enough and I got cold very quickly, particularly my feet.

Sometimes a man came out of the bedroom into the kitchen. He gazed at me for a long time, he stroked my hair, he kissed me on the forehead, he pressed my hands against his cheeks.

 

I didn’t like that, I was afraid of him, I trembled. But I wasn’t brave enough to push him away.

 

He came often. And he wasn’t a peasant.

 

I wasn’t afraid of the peasants, I detested them, I despised them, they disgusted me.

 

I met this man, the one who stroked my hair, at school. There was only one school in the village. The teacher gave lessons to the pupils in every year, right up to the sixth.

 

On my first day at school, my mother washed me, dressed me, cut my hair. She also got dressed up the best she could. She accompanied me to school. She was only twenty-three, she was beautiful, the most beautiful woman in the village, and I was ashamed of her.

 

She said to me:

 

‘Don’t be afraid. The teacher is nice. You know him already.’

 

I went into the classroom, I sat in the front row. Right in front of the teacher’s desk. I waited. Next to me sat a very beautiful little girl, pale and thin, with tresses on both sides of her face. She looked at me and said:

 

‘You’re wearing my brother’s jacket. And his shoes. What’s your name? My name is Caroline.’

 

The teacher came in and I recognised him.

 

Caroline said:

 

‘That’s my father. And back there with the bigger children is my elder brother. Back home there’s my little brother, who is only three. My father is called Sandor and he’s in charge here. What is your father’s name? What does he do? He is a peasant, I reckon. Everyone round here is a peasant, except my father.’

 

I said:

 

‘I don’t have a father. He is dead.’

 

‘Oh! That’s a shame. I wouldn’t like my father to be dead. But there’s the war and lots of people will die. Particularly men.’

 

I said:

 

‘I didn’t know there was a war. But maybe you’re lying.’

 

‘I’m not lying. They talk about the war every day on the radio.’

 

‘I haven’t got a radio. In fact, I don’t even know what a radio is.’

 

‘You really are stupid! What are you called?’

 

‘Tobias. Tobias Horvath.’

 

She laughed:

 

‘Tobias is a funny name. I have a grandfather who is called Tobias, but he is old. Why didn’t they give you a normal name?’

 

‘I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, Tobias is a normal name. Caroline isn’t a particularly nice name either.’

 

‘You’re right. I don’t like my name. Call me Line, like everyone else.’

 

The teacher said:

 

‘Stop talking, children.’

 

Line whispered:

 

‘Which class are you in?’

 

‘The first.’

 

‘Me too.’

 

The teacher handed out the list of reading books and notebooks we had to buy.

 

The children went home. I stayed behind on my own. The teacher asked me:

 

‘Is there something wrong, Tobias?’

 

‘Yes. My mother can’t read and we don’t have any money.’

 

‘I know. Don’t worry. You will have everything you need tomorrow morning. You get yourself home. I will come and see you this evening.’

 

 

 

 

He came. He shut himself up in the bedroom with my mother. He was the only one who bothered to close the door when he had sex with my mother.

 

I went to bed in the kitchen, as usual.

 

 

 

 

The next day at school I found everything I needed at my desk. Books, notebooks, pencils, pens, a rubber, paper.

 

That day, the teacher said that Line and I couldn’t stay sitting together, because we chatted too much. He sat Line in the middle of the room, surrounded by girls, and she chatted even more than before. I sat on my own in front of the teacher’s desk.

 

During playtime, the ‘big ones’ tried to annoy me. They shouted:

 

‘Tobias, son of a whore, son of Esther!’

 

The teacher intervened, all big and strong:

 

‘Leave the little one alone. If you lay a hand on him, you’ll have me to deal with.’

 

They all backed off and lowered their heads.

 

At playtimes only Line came to me. She gave me half of her jam sandwich or biscuit. She would say:

 

‘My parents told me I should be nice to you, because you are poor, because you don’t have a father.’

 

I would have liked to refuse the sandwich or the biscuit. But I was hungry. At home I never had such nice things to eat.

 

 

 

 

I continued to go to school. I quickly learned to read and do sums.

 

The teacher still came to our house. He lent me books. Sometimes he brought me clothes his eldest son had grown out of, or shoes. I didn’t want them, because I knew that Line would recognise them, but my mother made me wear them.

 

‘You haven’t got anything else to wear. Would you rather go to school naked?’

 

I didn’t want to go to school naked, I didn’t want to go to school at all. But school was compulsory. The police would have come round if I hadn’t gone. That’s what my mother said. They could lock her up too, if she didn’t send me to school.

 

So I went. I went to school for six years.

 

Line would say to me:

 

‘My father is very nice to you. We could keep my older brother’s coats for the little one, but he gives them to you because you don’t have a father. My mother goes along with this because she too is very nice, she thinks that she should help the poor.’

 

The village was full of very nice people. Peasants and peasants’ sons came to the house all the time to bring us something to eat.

 

 

 

 

By the age of twelve, I had finished compulsory education and had received excellent marks. Sandor said to my mother:

 

‘Tobias should continue his studies. He is of above-average intelligence.’

 

My mother replied:

 

‘You know that I don’t have any moneyto pay school fees.’

 

Sandor said:

 

‘I could find him a free place. My eldest son has one. They are given bed and board. There’s nothing to pay. I can give him pocket money. He could be a lawyer or a doctor when he grows up.’

 

My mother said:

 

‘If Tobias goes away, I’ll be on my own. I thought that once he grew up he would bring money into the house. By working with the peasants.’

 

Sandor said:

 

‘I don’t want my son to become a peasant. Even worse, a farm hand, a beggar like you.’

 

My mother said:

 

‘When I kept this child I was thinking of my old age. And you want to take him away from me now that I am starting to grow old.’

 

‘I thought you kept the child because you loved me and you loved him.’

 

‘Yes, I loved you, and I still love you. But I need Tobias. I can’t live without him. Now it’s him that I love.’

 

Sandor said:

 

‘If you really love him, go away. He’ll never turn out well with a mother like you. You’ll be nothing but a burden, an embarrassment to him, all his life.

Go to the city. I’ll pay for your ticket. You are still young. You can still pass off as a woman in her twenties. You could earn ten times what you get from these lousy peasants. I’ll take care of Tobias.

 

My mother said:

 

‘It’s because of you that I stayed here, and because of Tobias. I wanted him to be near his father.’

 

‘Are you really sure that he is my son?’

 

‘You know very well he is. I was a virgin. I was only sixteen. You ought to remember that.’

 

‘I know that the whole village has had you over the years.’

 

She said:

 

‘That’s true. But what would I have lived from without that?’

 

‘I’ve helped you.’

 

‘Yes, old coats, old shoes. I had to eat too.’

 

‘I did what I could. I’m only a village schoolteacher and I have three children of my own.’

 

My mother asked:

 

‘Don’t you love me any more?’

 

The man replied:

 

‘I’ve never loved you. You bewitched me with your face, your eyes, your mouth, your body. You possessed me. But I do love Tobias. He belongs to me. I will take care of him. But you have to go away. It’s over between us. I love my wife and children. Even the one who was born of you I love. I can’t stand you any more. You are just a youthful indiscretion, the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life.’

 

As usual, I was on my own in the kitchen. From the bedroom came the usual noises, which I hated. In spite of everything, they were still making love.

I listened to them. I shivered on my mattress, under my blanket, and the whole kitchen shivered with me. I tried to warm my arms, my legs, my stomach with my hands, but to no avail. I was racked by a sob which couldn’t escape from my body. On my mattress, under my blanket, I had suddenly realised that Sandor was my father and that he wanted to get rid of my mother and me.

 

My teeth chattered.

 

I was cold.

 

I felt hate rising within me against that man who claimed to be my father and who was now asking me to abandon my mother at the same time as he was abandoning her himself.

 

A void opened up inside me. I had had enough, I didn’t want anything any more. Not to study, nor to work with the peasants who came every day to have sex with my mother.

 

I had only one desire: to leave, to walk, to die, whatever. I wanted to get away, never come back, disappear, melt away into the forest, the clouds, no longer have memories, forget, forget.

 

I took the largest knife from the drawer, a meat knife. I went into the bedroom. They were asleep. Him lying on her. They were illuminated by the moon. It was a full moon. A huge moon.

 

I plunged the dagger into the man’s back, I pressed down on it with all my weight so that it would go well in and also go through my mother’s body.

 

After that, I left.

 

I walked through the fields of maize and wheat, I walked through a forest. I went towards the setting sun, I knew there were other countries in the west, countries different from ours.

 

 

 

 

I went through villages begging and stealing fruit and vegetables from fields. I hid myself in goods trains, I travelled with lorry drivers.

 

Without realising it, I arrived in another country, in a large city. I continued to steal and beg the necessities of life. I slept on the streets.

 

One day, the police arrested me. They put me in a ‘children’s home’ for boys. There were delinquents, orphans and homeless boys like me.

 

I didn’t call myself Tobias Horvath any more. I had made myself a new name with the names of my father and mother. I was now called Sandor Lester and I was treated as a war orphan.

 

They asked me lots of questions, they made investigations in several countries to find any surviving family, but no one claimed Sandor Lester.

 

At the home we were clean, well fed and well educated. The principal was a beautiful, elegant, very stern woman. She wanted us to turn into well brought-up men.

 

When I was sixteen,I could leave and take up a trade. If I had gone for an apprenticeship I could have stayed at the home, but I’d had enough of the principal, the restrictions of the timetable, having to share a bedroom with several other people.

 

I wanted to earn enough money to be completely free as quickly as possible.

 

I became a factory worker.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday, at the hospital, I was told that I could go home and go back to work. So I went home, I threw the pills they had given me — pink, white, blue — down the toilet.

 

Luckily it was Friday, I had another two days before I had to go back to work. I used them to do my shopping, to restock my fridge.

 

On Saturday evening I visited Yolande. Then, when I got home, I drank several bottles of beer and I wrote.


 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s