Book review: The Illiterate by Agota Kristof (trs by Nina Bogin)


Agota Kristof is not, as you might think, a mispronounced Queen of Crime, but a Hungarian poet, playwright and novelist, who wrote in French. Her best known book – a relative term – is The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier). The Notebook is a masterpiece, and has been reissued by C B Editions alongside The Illiterate, which is the first English translation of Kristof’s slim memoir L’Analphabète.

The Illiterate is the story of a girl who lived for the written word – “I read. It is like a disease,” she begins – and of what happened to her when her language was taken away. It was taken away because she lived in politically unstable Hungary after the Second World War. When the Russians invaded, all other languages were forbidden; but even in despair there was humour. When Stalin died, in 1953, she and her fellow pupils were instructed to write a composition on “The Death of Stalin”. One girl burst into tears, and her teacher comforted her and said: “Your compositions will not be graded, considering that you are all in a state of shock.”

At the age of 21, in 1956, Kristof fled Hungary with her husband and four-month-old daughter. Even then, her priorities remained intact. “I am carrying two bags. One holds baby bottles, diapers and clean clothes for the baby; the other holds dictionaries.” They escaped to Austria, and from there to Switzerland, where Kristof stayed until her death in 2011. Her relief at arriving in a safe country was tempered by an irreparable loss: she had to speak French, “an enemy language [that] is killing my mother tongue”. And worse was the “social desert, the cultural desert” of the migrant. Kristof found the Swiss kind, but “after the exaltation of the days of revolution and escape, come silence, emptiness.” Hers is a story first of belonging, then of longing.

The style of The Illiterate is plain but packed. The language, as translator Nina Bogin notes, is “stripped of embellishment or metaphor or excess of meaning”. This is appropriate for one who values words so highly: not one is wasted. The title comes from Kristof’s acknowledgement that, five years after arriving in Switzerland, she still could not read French. “I have become illiterate once again.” She made a new home for herself by beginning to write poems, then plays, then the great achievements of her fiction.) This is a book of relevance today because we live in a world of migration, and Kristof shows it to us from within. It is one of the last books she wrote, slim and clean, but containing the accumulations of a lifetime.