Books: To conjure up a forest

YESTERDAY by Agota Kristof trs David Watson, Secker pounds 9.99
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Agota Kristof was born in Hungary, but emigrated to Switzerland after the failed 1956 revolution and started writing in French. The French she writes in is child's-primer spare and simple, seldom using a construction that would not be known to a British person doing her GCSE. Her settings are hostile, stateless and empty. And her refugee narrators are empty, too. They sleep, they eat, they think, and they kill when they have to. And then, they don't seem sorry afterwards. They live, a bit like Beckett's characters, because that is all there is to be done.

Tobias, the narrator of Yesterday, works in a factory in his host country. He discovers he can conjure up a forest, a tiger, his own death, even, by writing down the words. "Life should be different from what it was, in other words, nothing. Life should be something, and I waited for this something to come." And then it does, for a little while: Line, the narrator's childhood sweetheart from the old country, turns up to work in the factory. She is also his half-sister out of wedlock, though she doesn't know this. And she is married, and she has a child.

I know what you're thinking: it sounds so terribly nouveau roman. But forget the labels for a moment, and only watch what the writing does. Are the situations being generated by a spare second-language vocabulary, straitened in the things it can write about because it may not know their name? Or are these the only words there ever were for such experiences - because of a hole somewhere in the environment, or in the narrator's very head?

Kristof is good to read in French if you're thinking of learning. When the language is alien for you, as it is for her, it can convey the most curious sensation, as if you are walking a tightrope, and having to keep making it ahead of you as you go. Not that the experience is so much less tense in English. The austere, desperate poetry seems to translate well.

As well as this new, stand-alone novel - short like all her books, a bare 96 pages long - Secker now publishes Kristof's famous Book of Lies trilogy, a tale of twins who spend the whole of the first volume speaking as one. As they split, Europe splits underneath them. Even now that east and west are one again, it is still a continent of lost and divided souls.