In an earlier post (THE WALL) I mentioned that I had attended a Q & A with Dennis Cooper at the South London Gallery. During said Q & A, Mr Cooper mentioned in passing a novel called “The Third Lie” by Agota Kristof. This seemed like a pretty good recommendation, so I found a copy of the book. It turns out “The Third Lie” is in fact the third novel in a trilogy, following the “The Notebook” and “The Proof” in the series. Conveniently Grove Press publish this in a single edition.
I’d been spending a lot of time recently, in a literary sense, in California, rereading all the mighty Raymond Chandler “Marlowe” novels and dipping into the work of John Fante for the first time. Kristof’s novel sent me straight back to Europe. Though to be fair the novels never fully establish their setting. It would seem that the novels are set in Hungary, the Author’s country of original before she was forced to flee the country to Switzerland during the Revolution of 1956. Describing the narrative of this book is a misleading exercise but put simply it is the story of the lives of of twin brothers Lucas and Claus. “The Notebook” begins with their Second World War evacuation, by their Mother from their native city, to their estranged, eccentric Grandmother. “The Notebook” presents a tableau of rural poverty and cruelty as the boys both accustom themselves to the abuse of their Grandmother and what will be become a lifetime of isolation. This is done in two main forms, firstly through and almost endless list of concentration and deprivation exercises (including exercises in ‘Fasting’ and ‘Cruelty’) and secondly through ‘The Notebook’, which is constantly adjusted to compliment their findings. The notebook is hidden and most only contain that which is found to be ‘true’.
The book is written in an objective tone which leaves one with the impression that what is actually being described in this rural family tale, is an exploration of the nature of Evil. Norman Mailer attempted this with his final book “The Castle in the Forest” (2007) his Hitler family saga, but couldn’t resist revealing the narrator was an Angel rather quickly. Nothing quite so mythological happens here, though we have various configurations of Patricide and Matricide later on. The book finishes with the separation of the boys as one crosses the land-mined frontier, aided by the boys Father whose death reveals the location of the mines, whilst the other twin remains alone in their deceased Grandmothers house.
The book is narrated by the boys as “We”.
‘The Proof’ continues the story of Lucas, the twin who remains, into adulthood. Lucas’ separation from his twin, left only with the skeletons of his mother and his baby sister for company, has dire consequences on his Psyche. A revolution and counter-revolution come and go and Lucas befriends and adopts a young woman and her son; the product of an incestuous relationship with her father. He continues work on ‘The Notebook’, which as time passes becomes instead “The Proof” that his Brother actually existed. We begin to discover that many of the historical facts about the Boy’s life, that anchor the first book of the sequence may not actually be true. The book finishes with the suicide of Lucas’ adoptive son, the disappearance of Lucas and the appearance of Claus. Claus becomes the beneficiary of the Notebook. Claus is unable to find his brother and is to be deported back across the Frontier. The Notebook is produced as proof of the existence of his Brother, and his true Nationality but it is revealed that the work has in fact been written in the hand of Claus, himself over the period of six months, which is in fact the duration of his stay in his old home town.
The book is narrated in the Third Person.
The final installment “The Third Lie”, is narrated in the first person, ostensibly by Claus. Believing himself to be seriously ill, he waits in his prison cell for his extradition. He describes his young life in a rehabilitation centre, which is now an orphanage, where he is recovering from a mysterious spinal injury. His parents and brother never come to visit him and when the building is struck by a bomb, with know one to claim him he is sent to stay with an abusive peasant woman whom he learns to call ‘Grandmother’. She eventually dies and Claus crosses the frontier by blackmailing a man who is killed by a land mine. The authorities can find no evidence of his claim that he originally had family in the country and his extradition continues. He is sent to the embassy in the capital. We learn that when he crossed the border as a child he gave his brothers name. His name is Lucas
With the help of a friendly diplomat he learns that his brother, Claus is a famous poet, who is alive and living with his Mother in the capital. he makes contact. The second part of the book is narrated by Claus, who eventually agrees to meet his brother but hides his existence from his Mother. He denies he has a brother, despite Lucas’ recollections. Lucas leaves never to return. Claus describes the disintegration of his family, his mothers shooting of his father, and the consequent ricochet that hit his brother. He is left to be raised by a woman, who unbeknownst to him, was his Father’s mistress and with his half-sister. Years later he discovers the truth and returns to his Mother, who mistakes him for his brother. The last contact that he ever has with his brother is a note asking that he be buried in the cemetery plot near to his parents.
This is a gross over simplification of the novel’s plot line.
These books are one of the most powerful expressions that I have come across of the fragmented self. Not necessarily in the story they tell but in the effect that they had upon me as reader; exposing my willingness for a certain kind of overarching narrative, into which memory can be adjusted to fit within. Characters with the same name, major and minor, reappear throughout as completely different individuals whose memories contradict our understanding of the sequence. The narrative continually unfolds and even the completion of the cycle does not offer closure. For instance there is the implication that the reason for Claus/Lucas’ fragmentation is the trauma of the gunshot wound accidentally inflicted by his mother as she shoots her husband, when he reveals his infidelity. However given that many such suggestions are made throughout the cycle the occurrence of this suggestion, near to the end of the last book, does not give it particular credence. There are many endings, throughout, which seem plausible, or better still they convince us of their plausibility. This could simply be a story of the pain of separation from one’s family in desperate times yet it could equally be some traumatic fantasy spewed out by a diseased mind. It is strange for such a narrative book to almost destroy any sense of narrative. The work forms a loop. The form of the book itself of beginnings and ends is exposed.
Two other books spring to mind in relation to this firstly, and appropriately as it was his suggestion that brought me to the book, Dennis Coopers’ ‘Period’. The final book in his George Miles cycle. A book that is literally a mirror, within the cycle which itself circular, that spins the reader in every which way. (Strangely the other book I read on Cooper’s suggestion the “The Show that Smells” by Derek McCormack, is set in a hall of mirrors. )
The other book, and the clue was in the post ‘Night-Time Visitor‘, was Whitley Strieber’s recollection of alien abduction “Communion”. A book that described the pain of False Memory Syndrome and that as a cultural phenomenon was used both to debunk and popularise its very existence. My feeling about ‘Communion’ is that it doesn’t really matter whether the events that are described happened or not. For me either possibility is equally disturbing, that of being abducted by aliens or constructing a fantasy of being abducted by aliens and actually really believing it. (I choose for these purposes to ignore the possibility that the book was merely written for the purposes of relaunching the career of a writer who’s popularity had passed. Though, that may be the case.)
What I think is remarkable about Kristof’s book is that despite all the deftness of the authors mind, her touch is light. One does not realise one is being led. There is one tiny exception when the author makes clear reference to the Lucas/Claus anagram but other than that the intellect of the author is hidden, completely convincingly within these three novels and the many possible worlds that she creates. This is definitely a recommendation.