"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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At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left