How does a novel as slim and opaque as Agota Kristof’s The Notebook generate such extraordinarily unsettling power? Two twin brothers arrive at their grandmother’s house in the Little Town, not too far from the nearby Big Town, to wait until there is an end to the war consuming their country. In plain, unadorned prose, they describe the details of their new lives and their interactions with the grandmother they never knew until now. Their descriptions accumulate in the pages of a notebook that amounts to a compendium of their best “compositions”:
This is how a composition lesson proceeds:
We are sitting at the kitchen table with our sheets of graph paper, our pencils, and the notebook. We are alone.
One of us says:
“The title of your composition is: ‘Arrival at Grandmother’s.’”
The other says:
“The title of your composition is: ‘Our Chores.’”
We start writing. We have two hours to deal with the subject and two sheets of paper at our disposal.
At the end of two hours we exchange our sheets of paper. Each of us corrects the other’s spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: “Good” or “Not good.” If it’s “Not good,” we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s “Good,” we can copy the composition into the notebook.
To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good,” we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.”
It is forbidden to write, “The Little Town is beautiful,” because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.
Similarly, if we write, “The orderly is nice,” this isn’t a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, “The orderly has given us some blankets.”
We would write, “We eat a lot of walnuts,” and not “We love walnuts,” because the word “love” is not a reliable word, it lacks precision and objectivity. “To love walnuts” and “to love Mother” don’t mean the same thing. The first expression designates a pleasant taste in the mouth, the second a feeling.
Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.
There are a number of forces at work here that combine to produce a distinctly unnerving effect that runs throughout The Notebook. The pluralistic narration, which doesn’t let up for an instant, prohibits readers from ever being sure about exactly who is speaking at any given moment. The proliferation of narrators whose identities remain unspecified leaves the twins largely depersonalised. Then, too, the abstraction of setting, in conjunction with the menace of an encroaching but otherwise indistinct war, means that readers do not know exactly where and when The Notebook takes place. Eventually, of course, in the second half of the novel, enough details are spilled to allow readers to infer that the conflict in question is the Second World War and that the twins are seemingly located somewhere close to the border between Austria and Hungary. But the nature of this revelation, delayed and only implicit, underscores the oddity of the entire situation. At the same time that the twins avowedly affect a prose style as dispassionate and as devoid of value judgments as it can possibly be, a style that they believe enables them to chronicle their lives with the utmost precision, they also synthesise their voices and leave their surroundings indistinguishable in a way that countermands their stylistic objectives. They also maintain a resolute focus on the minutiae of their exercises without directing any thought towards the war of almighty proportions that engulfs the world around them, and they begin playing a series of bizarre psychological games without ever explaining their motives or their aims. The twins have an explicit dedication to linguistic precision, and an extraordinary capacity for it, and yet they make narratorial decisions that obscure what their words would otherwise render clearly. What, then, is the use of striving after prosaic clarity at the level of the sentence when events as significant as a war are marginalised without explanation and mindgames with a significance known only to the twins are conducted without explication? Prose style and narrative focus are distinctly at cross-purposes here: like a vehicle with two engines propelling it in opposite directions, The Notebook is a novel trying to tear itself apart.