Ágota Kristóf’s ‘The Notebook’ is a tale of twisted morality and survival during wartime | Calvert Reads

Ágota Kristóf’s ‘The Notebook’ is a tale of twisted morality and survival during wartime | Calvert Reads
Image: Ike Okwudiafor

11 June 2021
Text: Simon Lowe

Originally published in French in 1986, The Notebook is a stylistically bold story of nameless twins taken to live with their grandmother in a remote Hungarian village towards the end of the Second World War. The siblings scheme and survive according to their own twisted notion of morality; they swindle and blackmail without showing any signs of remorse.

Due to its eery, simplistic prose, The Notebook reads like a children’s fairy tale, yet one filled with imagery of violence, cruelty, and sexual perversion. The twins are a reflection of the world to which they were born, one where Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ is conjured in the most shocking ways. As each chapter progresses, we are carried on a journey, taken further into the realm of surreality, yet forced to confront the truth of what we witness. The twins’ callousness stands as a metaphor for the darkest episodes of 20th century European history.

Ágota Kristof, who fled Hungary after the failed 1956 revolution, has, in this way, created a twisted, perverse world that reflects the terror and unfeeling nature of war. A huge influence on the likes of Slavoj Žižek, who regards it as the “book through which I discovered what kind of a person I really want to be”, The Notebook is a bleak masterpiece of Central European fiction that haunts the memory.

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