"Shoes on the Danube Bank", a Holocaust memorial in Budapest on 16 April 16, Holocaust memorial day. Photo: Getty
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House of horrors: The Notebook by Ágota Kristóf

The Hungarian writer’s grimly humorous novel is a tale of monstrous twins during an unnamed war in an unspecified European country. 

The Notebook
Ágota Kristóf; translated by Alan Sheridan
CB Editions, 174pp, £8.99

The Illiterate
Ágota Kristóf; translated by Nina Bogin
CB Editions, 58pp, £7.99

Like many authors in translation, the Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf (and no, her name isn’t an eastern European corruption of “Agatha Christie”, as Slavoj Žižek admits he initially assumed in his admiring afterword) has not become widely known in this country. Yet this is not to say her most famous novel, The Notebook, remains an obscure case of succès d’estime, celebrated only by a small circle of devotees. The book, handsomely reissued by CB Editions, has been translated into 30 languages since it was first published in France in 1986 and last year it was made into a critically acclaimed film.

Little is known about Kristóf’s life, but most of what we do know is contained in her short memoir The Illiterate, which came out in 2004 and is now available to us in this excellent translation by Nina Bogin. (Bogin informs us that later in life, despite the lack of detail in these 11 short chapters, Kristóf regretted publishing the book.) Growing up in a remote village, the precocious Kristóf, whose father was the local schoolteacher, contracted early on what she calls the “reading disease”. In 1949, when she was 14, the first major disruption to her life came when her father was imprisoned by the communist authorities (we don’t learn what for) and she was separated from her beloved brother and sent to an orphanage-like girls’ boarding school in the city. It was here that, through necessity and loneliness, she began to write and act.

Without saying goodbye to her family, the 21-year-old Kristóf escaped Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 uprising, crossing the border by night into Austria before finding a home in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. While working in a clock factory and navigating the precarious existence of a refugee, she painstakingly began to “conquer” and then write seriously in an “enemy language . . . killing my mother tongue”. Eventually Kristóf had plays performed in French in a local bistro but her breakthrough came with the publication of The Notebook, which brought her prizes and well-merited international recognition.

The title alludes to the “Big Notebook” of secret diary entries kept by young twins during the tail end of an unnamed war in an unspecified country. Their mother evacuates them from the Big Town, which is under siege, and deposits them at their grandmother’s house on the edge of the Little Town. Grandmother, who makes it clear that she doesn’t want the boys, is a miserly old crone known as “the Witch” and is rumoured to have poisoned her husband. The twins devise toughening “exercises” to immunise themselves against the physical and verbal abuse meted out by Grandmother and strangers alike. They arm themselves with a razor and lash each other with belts, gradually learning to stop crying. They commit, with unnerving calmness, senseless acts of violence, kill animals and conduct experiments in fasting and “immobility” (lying face-down on the floor for as long as possible). Through play-acting as deaf and blind beggars, they learn to scrounge in local taverns; drilling holes in the floor of the attic, they spy on the masochistic foreign officer billeted in Grandmother’s spare room.

The boys strip corpses they find in the forest beyond the garden, full of war deserters and locals attempting to escape across the heavily guarded frontier into “the other country”. Once the occupying forces retreat, as the “New Foreigners” advance to liberate the Little Town, the twins break into what is clearly a concentration camp, heaped with charred bodies. Even without the facts later borne out in The Illiterate – reminiscences of growing up in a border town under Nazi and then Soviet occupation – such details confirm the feeling that The Notebook is a thinly veiled parable of Hungary towards the end of the Second World War.

The boys have their own set of skewed values but just when the reader believes they have displayed some sign of humanity, they jolt you with new heights of pathological cruelty. In this land devoid of moral agency, riven by nameless foreign armies, deportations, forced disappearances, air raids and “liberators”, they clinically record their exploits in the Big Notebook kept hidden in the attic. The aim of these strict “composition exercises” is to set down a record unadorned by opinion or information superfluous to a straight record of fact. It is the spare nature of the narrative that sets up The Notebook’s most grimly humorous moments and makes it such a compelling read.

Most shocking are the accounts of the twins’ hare-lipped young neighbour, who is so starved of intimacy that she indulges in bestiality, later to die “happy, fucked to death” by a gang of foreign soldiers. When the twins’ mother is killed by a shell blast, they bury her in the garden where she fell but later dig her up, polish her bones, re-articulate the skeleton with wire and hang it from a beam in the attic. The Notebook is a transfixing house of horrors.

J S Tennant works for PEN International and is the poetry editor of the White Review

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage