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Agota Kristof: Le grand cahier (The Notebook)

Claus and Lucas are two young male twins in an unnamed country where there is a war going on. Their mother, worried about the dangers of living in the city, sends them to their grandmother in the country. Their grandmother is known locally as a witch and is reputed to have poisoned her husband and, perhaps, others. She does not want to look after the boys and does not make them welcome. She beats them, makes them work hard and almost starves them. But the novel is about how children have to adapt to the cruelties of the war and they are able to become, in a very matter-of-fact, unemotional way, as tough, as ruthless, as amoral as the adults they come across. They beat each other to become tough and starve themselves to become used to starvation. They protect the poor Bec-de-Lièvre and her mother. They use blackmail when appropriate but allow themselves to be sexually used by both men and women. They kill casually but refuse to confess when cruelly beaten up by the police. Kristof, who saw it in her native Hungary, is clearly warning about the dangerous effects of war on children and the fact that children cannot remain children when faced by war.

The story is told by the two twins as though they were one and, indeed, they remain as one till the very last sentence of the book. They also remain as the only survivors of all the characters, as the rest are, gradually, one by one, eliminated. Their survival is by a combination of cunning and ruthlessness. And that, no doubt, is what the world is coming to according to Kristof.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Editions du Seuil
First English translation in 2986 by Grove
Translated by Alan Sheridan