The Twins Trilogy (The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie)
Author: Agota Kristoff
Published in French: 1986, 1988, 1991 (Three Novels)
Length: 480 pages
We say, “The art is original,” but how to interpret this phrase? The description ‘original’ is promiscuously thrown about nowadays that the word does not invoke much awe. However, when I say the art is original, I presume the word signifies the momentum capable of breaking the perimeters set hitherto by other existent arts.
In terms of originality. Agota Kristof’s “The Twins” trilogy (composed of The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Life) is on par with Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet or Roberto Bolano’s 2666. You just never read anything like it. And the impact is powerful, surprising in its testimony to the immensity of human imagination and the infinite variation a certain art form (in this case, novel) can take.
A varying kinds of ingenuity shine through this trilogy, but if left to pick only one, I would choose its depiction of the shy gulf between truth and fiction as its greatest merit of this work. When we decide something as true, what criteria do we use? Truth turns out to be fiction, and fiction turns out to be truth: we assume there are sheer difference between these two concept (they are dialectical opposites, actually), then why do they switch places so easily? Is the difference between fiction and truth merely a fiction? What do we do to ourselves in order to convince us something as truth or as fiction?
Agota Kristof is from Hungry, but she took refuge in Switzerland and began to learn French in her early 20s. These novels are originally written in French, when Kristof was in late 40s.
The prose is clipped and simple, and at first, the readers might accuse the author’s belated introduction to French for such simple language. However, we soon realize that the trimmed and bared writing, lack of any aphoristic or edifying characteristic, is wholly intentional and accounts for the greatness of this novel.
The first novel, The Notebook, starts off as the twins are by dropped off by their mother to their grandmother’s house in the countryside because of the ongoing war in the city. The grandma resent the new company and shows them no kindness. The twins have to toil away at savagery of the countryside, the poverty, the lack of love, endless chores, and much more.
Twenty pages into reading, we realize that what we are reading is indeed the notebook written by these twins, both as a means of recording and of studying. They are nine years old in the beginning of the book, hence the simple writing. There is another reason. Here’s a long excerpt from the book about their writing.
…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.
Hence, the first novel compiles the observations of these two boys, the observations without an ounce of subjective analysis of the descriptions of events and surroundings during the time of war. They meet a handful of characters, a harelip girl who’s hungry for sexual love, a priest who may or may not be molesting her, and of course, their grandmother. Through the writings of the twins, the readers are besieged by the perversity incurred by war, but how the book handles the portrayal of said perversity is interesting and original.
One focus should be on these twin’s sense of ethics. The famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once wrote an article about the book, saying that the ethical choices of these boys deeply affected what kind of person he wants to be. Young as these twins are, they feel certain responsibilities in their choice of action, and their rationale is based on the “absolute necessity” of a situation. The line between what’s right and wrong is demarcated by the necessity of a certain situation (hence very relativistic, unlike Kant’s absolute morality). Their decisions based wholly on necessity rather than feeling comes off as savage and inhuman, but it is a stimulating thought experiment, especially in the context of war years.
The second novel, The Proof, is written in third person, unlike the first novel. Momentarily, the reader is convinced that we’re treated with the outside narrator henceforth. The novel tells the life of one of the twin brothers, who is left in this countryside (another went over the border to the other side). He allows a woman and her child to stay in his dwelling, (here again, the decision dictated by the necessity of these two outsiders: they need home). Once day, he tells the child, “Sleep well, Mathias. When you feel too much pain, too much sorrow, and you don’t want to talk to anyone, write it down. It will help you.” Mathias is a crippled child, and our protagonist is indeed following this advice himself. He is writing down the novel that we readers are reading. The readers will be shocked to find what the title The Proof designates. It is the birth of the existence through writing.
The third novel is divided into two parts, the first part written by one brother and the latter written by another. Similar to the second novel, the story makes us wonder what the title signifies. At the end of the second novel, we learn, with shiver running through our spine, why the author titled the book The Proof. The title The Third Lie, also points out the titular lie as well as the previous two lies that we readers believed as truth.
The narrator says, “Yes, no book, no matter how sad, can be as sad as a life.” The other brother says, “I go to bed and before falling asleep I talk to Lucas in my head the way I have for many years. What I tell him is just about what I usually do. I tell him that if he’s dead he’s lucky and I’d very much like to be in his place. I tell him that he got the better deal, that it is I who is pulling the greater weight. I tell him that life is totally useless, that it’s nonsense, an aberration, infinite suffering, the invention of a non-God whose evil surpasses understanding.”
Sadness, yes. It permeates throughout the entire trilogy.
The Twins Trilogy is a true work of art, a fiction in its supreme form, written by in insightful author, horrifyingly voyeuristic in every nook and cranny of human nature. It’s a shame that such a great work of fiction is not widely known in U.S.A.
The Notebook, the first book in the trilogy, has been adapted into film in 2014. You can see the trailer below.