childhood horror from agota ktistof


The first novel in a trilogy, The Notebookis the story of young twin boys who, abandoned by their mother, are forced to live with their grandparents. Known to the neighbours as “the witch,” the abusive grandmother quickly teaches the boys that they must protect each other or be defeated.  Through a self-imposed regimen of “exercises” which include self-mutilation and fasting, the boys seek to condition themselves to withstand any torture that may be directed at them . . .


Exercise to Toughen the Body

Grandmother often hits us with her bony hands, a broom, or a damp cloth. She pulls our ears and grabs us by the hair. 

Other people also slap and kick us, we don’t even know why.

The blows hurt and make us cry.

Falls, scratches, cuts, work, cold, and heat cause pain as well.

We decide to toughen our bodies so we can bear pain without crying.

We start by slapping and then punching one another. Seeing our swollen faces,

Grandmother asks:

“Who did that to you?”

“We did, Grandmother.”

“You had a fight? Why?” 

“For nothing, Grandmother. Don’t worry, it’s only an exercise.”

“An exercise? You’re crazy! Oh, well, if that’s your idea of fun . . .”


We are naked. We hit one another with a belt. At each blow we say:

“It doesn’t hurt.”

We hit harder, harder and harder.

We put our hands over a flame. We cut our thighs, our arms, our chests with a knife and pour alcohol on our wounds. Each time we say:

“It doesn’t hurt.”

After a while, we really don’t feel anything anymore. It’s someone else who gets hurt, someone else who gets burned, who gets cut, who feels pain.

We don’t cry anymore.


When Grandmother is angry and shouts at us, we say:

“Stop shouting, Grandmother, hit us instead.”

When she hits us, we say:

“More, Grandmother! Look, we are turning the other cheek, as it is written in the Bible.

Strike the other cheek too, Grandmother.”

She answers:

“May the devil take you with your Bible and your cheeks!”

—from Agota Kristof, The Notebook (1988). Translated by Alan Sheridan from Le Grand Cahier (1986), Editions du Seuil.