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Devouring nostalgia in a relentless style

· Ágota Kristóf dies ·

“On balance, I would say that 70 years is sufficient. I have lived long enough.” Long enough – and this was in 2005 – to have entered into the history books of modern literature as one of the few writers capable of capturing the horrors of the times.

Agota Kristof, Hungarian by birth, Swiss by adoption and French in her writings, is the author of The Key to the Lift (1999), Yesterday (2002), Revenge (2005) and Where are You, Mathias (2006) as well as numerous plays, but is perhaps most well-known for her Trilogy of the City of K . (1988-1998).

Witness to the invasion of her country by Soviet troops in 1956, she fled with her husband and risked arrest as an anti-communist in Swiss Neuchatel (a city which she never left). She was forced to work in a clock-making shop and arrived late to the written word.

But she arrived with all of the psychological and moral desperation of a daughter of a shocking and pitiful experience, full of the devouring nostalgia of the exile and the radical breakdown of values of a civilization devastated by war and misery.

Two twins animate the trilogy ( The Notebook , 1986; The Proof 1988; The Third Lie , 1991), even if they are not always together, beginning with a narrative “we” to a surviving “I” waiting to be re-joined. Two kids in a world, without place or time, crushed by a terrible and unexpected conflict (the Second World War but also the unexpected and unacceptable “red” occupation), are forced to learn how to survive before they can begin to live: to get by, to lie, to leave, to kill, to avoid order and take advantage of disorder. And eventually sow it.

Kristof makes this consecutio the framework of her narrative (war equals physical but also moral annihilation). Her relentless style, which imbues her words with the violence of life, invites the reader to comprehend the failed nihilism of the times, in the conviction that there is no human thing which can act as a remedy.

That phrase, “you need to know how to kill when it’s necessary,” has resonance, unfortunately, and is not easy to contradict when everything has lost meaning, when an unspeakable totalitarianism crushes affections, conscience, individual identity and community memory and imposes an intolerable present, canceling any future hope.

It is no mistake that the protagonists of the Trilogy are adolescents, at least in the beginning, because that is the age when the official lie destroys the fairy tale and installs the tragedy; the brutality of the contingent substitutes the myth and an informed judgment on that which is happening is replaced by the knowledge that something impossible is happening, or rather, has happened.

Denied their normal existence and violently forced to grow up too quickly in an illogical world, they are transformed into inflexible assassins, cold and implacable, but just, according to them. (A condition which brings to mind street children, child soldiers, Palestinians, Africans, “da rua,” and so on.)

Agota Kristof does not speak through symbols or metaphors: their ferociously dark gestures are “assisted,” so to speak, by a crude and cold lexicon, sadly and willingly “distant” from the object narrated. Yet, every stylization is felt and suffered, tormented, penetrated and perturbed. The zero grade of writing, almost telegraphed and never narrated, which in a total absence of light demonstrates gestures and words in the voracious emptiness of a black tale, leaves the reader with the need for air and sky; more than a direct cry, an exemplary warning.




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 22, 2019