Continental Drift

The European Union is a grand act of forgetting, but, in the novels of Ágota Kristóf, the violence of Europe's past keeps coming back to the surface

EUROPE is falling apart, or that is to say a certain kind of Europe is falling apart. Greece teeters at the edge of insolvency and exit, shattering the brief sense of unbreakable union, and authoritarian responses to the refugee crisis are casting a pall on several countries’ recently established democratic institutions. Debt and unemployment hover at record levels, and the nationalist and neo-Nazi parties that European integration was supposed to stamp out are gaining ground in elections and in the streets. Anti-immigrant rhetoric seeps freely into public discourse while immigrant populations are abandoned in ghettoes outside European capitals. Almost a quarter century since the Maastricht accords established the European Union, the continent seems less a unifying ideal than a citadel besieged from without and crumbling from within.

This new Europe has tried to divorce itself from the previous century’s wars and genocides, as if the continent was born anew in the 1989 revolutions and washed clean in Maastricht. It has been a vast neo-liberal project, leveling and unifying nationalities, classes, and markets in a sweep that is as much mythological as technical. It is a project of reinvention—so grand it is almost literary—that attempts to create a new and permanent present while obscuring the past.

The work of Hungarian-Swiss writer Ágota Kristóf runs contrary to this forgetting. It dwells in the cracks of the New Europe’s peaceful veneer, disinterring its hidden histories and traumas. Kristóf arrived in Austria in 1956, crossing over the Hungarian border—much as refugees do now—with her husband and newborn child, landing in an Austrian displaced persons center, and eventually being resettled in Switzerland amongst exiles from Hungary and other Eastern Bloc countries.

Kristóf arrived in the West with bitter memories of the Communist bloc and lived long enough to see the later system collapse and be subsumed by the former. Adrift and rootless in Switzerland, she taught herself French and set out to chronicle her memories of the war, totalitarianism, and alienation that shaped her life, starting with plays and then moving on to novels. In minute yet fantastical narratives she recounts the continent’s recent history through its smallest constituent parts—through episodes of loneliness, estrangement, and sexual and state violence with prose honed to a cutting edge, almost weaponized. With echoes of Beckett and Celine, Kristóf’s characters speak at each other, dislocated from place, as if on an empty stage or between ellipses. However, by dint of its sheer brutality, her writing is closer to that of the Austrian misanthrope Thomas Bernhard (whom she loved) or the British playwright Sarah Kane. Her characters carry out acts of dispassionate violence and dispassionate kindness. They hurt and fuck and love each other in a logic that only makes sense to a place of ghosts and ruptured memories. To enter Kristóf’s literary world is to explore a Europe brimming with violence and repression.

Ágota Kristóf was born in the autumn of 1935, in Csikvánd, a tiny village in northwestern Hungary. Her father was a teacher in the local school, but was imprisoned in 1949 by the new Communist government, when Kristóf was fourteen. After his arrest, Kristóf was sent to a state-run boarding school where she started to write, creating plays and keeping a secret diary. When she was nineteen, she married her high school history teacher and returned to the Hungarian countryside. In 1956 her husband participated in the uprising against the government. Soviet troops suppressed the revolt, and Kristóf (who was twenty-one) fled with her husband and their four-month-old daughter across the heavily guarded border.

In Switzerland, Kristóf discovered she had escaped one form of deadening alienation into another. In her fragmentary autobiography The Illiterate (recently translated and published by CB Editions) she describes their new life in the West: “It is here that the desert begins. A social desert, a cultural desert. After the exaltation of revolution and escape, come silence, emptiness, nostalgia for the days when we felt we were participating in something important, even historic.”

In Neuchâtel, a small city in the Suisse Romande (the francophone region of Switzerland), a refugee agency placed her in a watch factory with other recent immigrants. She spent years there, hunched over the noisy machines, composing poems in her head and then writing them down in Hungarian at home. She started to learn French after a few years, studying and writing in her spare time, filling her children’s spare notebooks with prose. After five years, she left both the factory and her husband and began writing in earnest. In 1972 she finished her first play, Le Rat qui passé, which was followed by other dramatic works. These enjoyed moderate success and allowed her time to work on her first novel, The Notebook, which she published in 1986 and formed the first part of a trilogy—her most famous work.

In The Notebook, Kristóf tried to capture the war and the holocaust as she and her brother experienced it as small children. In deciding how to write it, she struggled with perspective, but eventually settled on the first person plural. The book is narrated by twin boys who live at their Grandmother’s farm at the outset of a war that, like the country, is never named (but bear a resemblance to the Second World War and Hungary, respectively).

A metaphysical unease pervades the three books and the boy's dispassionate and precocious language is the first of its many iterations. It is obvious that something isn’t right with the twins or their fairytale world; even the “we” they use is not fully formed and doesn’t represent two autonomous subjects. (In his book The Monstrosity of Christ, Zizek uses a Lacanian formulation to explain this, saying the twins are “more than one but less than two.”) And as a single, if not complete, unit they approach life as a series of exercises, a training course for survival and verisimilitude.

To this end, they practice begging and playing blind and deaf to “find out what effect it has and to observe people's reactions.” They hurt each other to acclimate to pain and fast to endure hunger. They practice brutality by killing a chicken, and breaking the law by stealing and committing blackmail. When their Grandmother grows ill and asks them to poison her, they do so without much thought or hesitation. They kill and deceive as easily as they aid the weak and needy, embodying what Zizek (in talking about the twins) describes as an “ethical naivety.” He elaborates: “Morality is ‘sentimental,’ it involves others (only) in the sense that, looking at myself through others’ eyes, I like myself to be good; ethics, on the contrary, is naïve—I do what I have to do because it needs to be done, not because of my goodness.”

They are sociopaths, in other words, but sociopaths inclined to a neutral ethics, unrestrained by bourgeois morality, and committed in the form of exercises, which they record in a notebook that forms the novel’s epistolary base. It is a peculiar and isolated world they create, but outside forces intervene. The war ends and one foreign invader replaces the other, establishing a new regime and sealing the borders. In the end, following a failed uprising, the twins use their cruelly polished skills to flee across the nearby frontier into the West. One makes it across, and the other stays behind.

The second novel, The Proof (1988), picks up where the first left off, following Lucas, the twin who stays behind, as he suffers the quiet horrors of the new authoritarian regime—loneliness, deprivation, surveillance, and the ever-present threat of arrest. Obsession and desperate liaisons drive every action, and Lucas slowly comes out of his isolation by drawing a constellation of lonely people into his life: an eighteen year-old named Yasmine (who has a newborn child by an incestuous affair), a party functionary infatuated with Lucas but fearful of the proscriptions against homosexuality, and a widowed librarian tasked with destroying counter-revolutionary books who instead hides them in her basement in a growing pile. The government executed the librarian’s husband, and when she and Lucas start a disjointed love affair, she details her suffering.

“The summer is frightening. It is in the summer that death is closest. Everything dries out, suffocates, comes to a standstill. It’s already been four years since they killed Thomas. In August, very early in the morning, at dawn. They hanged him. The disturbing thing is that they start again every year. At dawn when you go home, I go to the window and see them. They are starting again, but you can’t kill the same person over and over.”

Does the librarian relive the horror of her husband’s death or does the state actually reenact the killing? These are the uncertainties that make up the trilogy’s troubled relationship with memory, how traumatic memories impose on reality, fracturing the present. The books are saturated with this kind of madness, but it is a madness born of material conditions, reflecting how objective violence transforms subjective experience.

When Kristóf visited Hungary for the first time since settling in Switzerland, in 1968, she realized that she no longer belonged in either country, that she had become estranged from both. This sort of national disassociation is translated into a novelistic structure that disallows a comforting sense of place or solidity. The second and third novels each disassemble the reality on which the previous one was built, and the last book, The Third Lie (1991) does so even more than The Proof. It is told in the first person by Klaus, who details his return to the country he fled. As he tries to find the brother he left behind, Klaus drifts between memories and reality—memories that contradict and unravel the events of the other books. In another writer’s hands this could sink to a cheap literary trick, but nothing is so simple in Kristóf’s writing—there is no catharsis at the end, no reveal, only a profound and crushing sense of dissociation and the parallel universes that personal and collective traumas create.

In the course of Ágota Kristóf’s later life, the Europe she knew disappeared. The border she snuck across with her husband and newborn daughter no longer exists. The Hungarian Communist regime fell in 1989, along with the other Eastern European governments. In 2004, Hungary joined the European Union and signed onto the Schengen Agreement—which removes border controls between signatory countries—three years later.

You can now travel from Hungary to Austria without having to stop at a border post or show a passport. On the streets of Vienna, Brussels, or Budapest today you would have to look hard to find the marks of the deep collective traumas that lie beneath the surface. The political ideology of the West is always in the present tense. It offers no future and no past. Thus to argue, even to imagine, that the recent past or the near future was or could be different is to reassert the complexity of historical progression, and also to assert its unfolding as a sum total of personal experiences instead of the narrative of dominant power.

In the early days of the Third Reich, Bertolt Brecht proposed a theory of theater called Verfremdungseffekt (sometimes translated as alienation effect) in which audiences are given distance from what they were watching by setting the political problems outside of historical time, or, at least, at great historical remove. Consciously or not, Kristóf seems to have taken this approach towards the relationship between memory and historical trauma, placing her characters in a time both recognizable and estranged. In his introduction to The Illiterate, Gabriel Josipovici described this effect as an “unflinching gaze at a world far removed from any I had experienced and yet curiously familiar.” This gaze is what makes Kristóf’s writing unique and yet wholly European: it is sweeping and at the same time constrained to the most minute detail, set in time and also stripped of the specificity of names.

In his book-length essay A Grand Illusion, the historian Tony Judt argues that this new Europe is no longer simply a matter of geography but of concept, of adopting European standards of freedom, memory, and forgetting. It is an act of becoming, a process no longer tied to jus soli or jus sanguinis but to social and political assimilation. This unified Europe is founded on permanent exclusion: the power to determine who is in and who is out, which history is retold and which is forgotten. To read Kristóf’s work now is to explore a different transnational experience, existing at the edges of the neo-liberal imagination, which asserts itself in a different kind of European literature—one that represents Europe as a place of surreal violence and repression, refracted through a multitude of personal experiences. It seeks the rotten core of the continent, its old, festering wounds that surface again and again. It seeks to bring them into the present and place them alongside the exuberant banners of social democracy and transcontinental unity, and say this is what Europe is made of; this is what Maastricht cannot make us forget.