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.

 

 

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.


 

read more kristof…

“on what else would our anguish feed if we did not all feel we had a small part in universal evil?”


Nobel Prize–winner Imre Kertész’s novella The Pathfinder is a haunting story about the psychological dynamics experienced by those who choose to understand and reveal totalitarianism and its legacy—as well as a study in the behaviour of those who ignore, deny and conceal the past. Set in an unnamed middle-European country, a visiting government investigator finds his questions and discoveries lead him more and more into a realm characterized by fear, suspicion, and powerlessness; it is a world resonant with intimations of the barbarism of human agency and the tenuous nature of our efforts to rescue the past from falsehood and oblivion.

Here are the opening pages:

 


Visiting

 

The host—a man with a complicated family name, Hermann by Christian name—was chattering ingenuously; it seems he really did still take his guest to be only a simple colleague, and the latter, puffing on his pipe (a tiresome implement but, it had to be admitted, one that on occasion was quite indispensable) quietly studied his face. He did not see it as anything special: it was the face of a middle-aged man that radiated an untroubled self-confidence, oval in shape, ordinary nose and mouth, brown hair, blue eyes. As yet it was impossible to tell for sure if behind the show of chattering was concealed the usual trickery or merely infantile naïveté; he inclined toward the latter assumption, though in point of fact—he reflected—the difference between the two was negligible. He cast another glance at him: did he really seriously believe he had finally managed to cut the strings? Well, it made no difference; he would soon have to learn that the strings never could be cut and that, like all witnesses, sooner or later he, too, would have to confess.

 

He donated another minute to him, a single minute of unclouded freedom from care. He paid attention to his chatter; he was chattering about his occupation, or, to be more precise, the difficulties of his occupation, with the confidence, if maybe not of an accomplice, then of a colleague, pretending to be immensely concerned on their account—that is to say, pretending to have not a care in the world. Crafty, the guest granted, very crafty; it was not going to be easy to break him, that was for sure. He swept his eyes over the scene: the moment seemed opportune, with the two of them sitting in spruce-green leather armchairs in one corner of the room, behind a coffee table, while in another corner the wives were trying out shoes on each other’s feet, totally absorbed in this female whimsy. Yes, it was time to set to work. 

 

He took the pipe from his mouth and cut him short with calm, premeditated hostility. He then informed him in a single terse sentence who he was and the object of his mission and the investigation that he was to pursue. Hermann turned slightly pale. He soon pulled himself together, though, as was only to be expected: to some extent the unexpected announcement had caught him off-guard, for up till now all the signs suggested that the guest—the colleague—had come to the small town merely on account of the specialist conference that had just ended, as a result of which, offhand, he could not think what to say at this late hour…

 

“And after so many years,” the guest interjected.

 

“Just so! I can’t deny that either,” Hermann responded. “But one thing intrigues me before we go any further: Am I under any obligation at all to answer your questions?”

 

“No,” came the quick answer. “Your own laws are the only ones applicable to you. You should definitely be cognizant of that, and it’s inexcusable of me not to have said so at the start.”

 

Hermann thanked him, he had merely been curious, and now, he declared with a smile, he was ready to give evidence, voluntarily and freely, as his guest could see. True, the guest agreed, though maybe with less appreciation than Hermann, for all his magnanimity, had no doubt been expecting. The guest was evidently of the opinion—surprising self-assurance—that Hermann would give evidence in any event. But that was precisely what was baffling. He asked nothing, just carried on calmly sitting there, sucking his pipe, looking almost bored.

 

Hermann broke the silence a minute later. What, in point of fact, he inquired, would be of interest to his guest? Would he like, perhaps, he pumped further, seeing that the guest was putting off giving an answer, as if he were still weighing something up, to quiz him, Hermann, about some personal questions? Or maybe, he continued with a ready, conciliatory little smile in anticipation of understanding, to ascertain what he, Hermann, knew, and how much?

 

“Well, certainly,” he responded. “Of course, I’d be glad to listen, insofar as you are indeed in the mood to talk about it.”

 

“Why not?” Hermann shrugged. After all, he had nothing to hide. Though it therefore followed, he added, that he did not have much to say either. There was no denying that he had heard about the case. He also knew that it had happened around there. It was painful, still painful, even to talk about it. He personally had not been able to devote much attention to it at the time. He did not wish to burden his guest with explanations, butat any rate he had good reason, at the time, for instance, to say no more; he had still been more or less a child, which was no excuse, of course, merely a circumstance, but it might go some way to explaining it. Even so, naturally, one thing and another had come to his attention. He heard that something had happened, despite the numerous impediments—indeed, it might be true to say that precisely through their conspicuous presence—it had been impossible for a person not to become aware of certain things, albeit involuntarily. Anyone who said any different was lying. However, the details and the scale, which is to say the case itself, had actually only started to assume their true shape later on.

 

At this point, Hermann relapsed into silence for a minute; perhaps to give himself a fixed point to rest on at last, he interlaced his constantly mobile hands, which had been providing a running commentary to accompany everything he said, around a knee that he had pulled up as he sat there, and a quiet popping of his knuckles was clearly audible before he commenced speaking again.

 

He could have done what others had done and just ignored the matter. Who could reproach him for that? But, he carried on, something had given him no respite; something had driven him, troubled him—curiosity, but no, that wasn’t the right word for it, yet this wasn’t the place for being modest, so was it all right for him to speak instead about duty, the agonizing duty of knowledge? He had set about feverish research: he had sought facts, indisputable facts above all, in order to see his way clearly in the matter. He had collected files, acquired evidence, accumulated an entire archive—there were things to show to the guest. All that was missing now was to work up this heap of objective evidence; it was just… Hermann sighed deeply, leaned back in his seat without letting go of his knee, and closed his eyes for a minute as if they were being bothered by the strong lamplight. “It’s just that even with the hypothesizing,” he continued, “we are going a long way, rather too far in fact. One had certain thoughts: one can’t help it. And although those thoughts don’t stem from yourself… it’s just… how to put it? You understand? In other words… there’s something intimidating about this. Something stirs inside… some inner protest… a feeling that I find hard to put a name to offhand… I’m afraid I am not making myself clear enough…”

 

He fell silent again, casting an unsure glance at the guest, and although the latter was careful that no comment of his should exercise any influence, Hermann seemed to have read encouragement from his expression, because he continued:

 

“Perhaps it’s the fact,” he said, “that it’s possible. Yes, the fact that we surmise the impossible, and all of a sudden we gain proof that… that it’s possible. I think,” working himself into a fever, “that I’ve managed to capture that certain feeling.” He leaned forward, very close to the guest, his eyes burning with a strange light, his voice switching to a whisper. “The possibility, you catch my drift? Nothing else, the mere possibility. And that what happens just once, to just one person, has now transcended the frontiers of the possible, is now a law of reality…” He broke off, staring ahead, almost crushed, before again lifting his still slightly troubled eyes to the guest. “I don’t know if you understand what I’m getting at…”

 

“Of course I understand,” the guest nodded. “Thought-provoking and, moreover, probably true, because on what else would our constant anguish feed if we did not all feel we had a small part in universal evil?”

 

“Yes, yes! I see you understand me completely!” Hermann exclaimed, stretching out his hands in sudden delight toward the guest, then, perhaps failing to find the actual target of this exuberant motion, withdrew them: “I’m glad we met, glad you’re here! Indeed, you ought to have come sooner, I’d say!”

 

“That was impossible,” the guest apologized.

 

“There was a lot we needed to talk about, a lot! There was a time when I was very much expecting. . . expecting your arrival virtually any day!”

 

—Imre Kertész, The Pathfinder

(from http://media.npr.org/programs/day/features/2008/oct/pathseeker.pdf)