Ágota Kristóf

Ágota Kristóf

Ágota Kristóf was born in Csikvánd, Hungary, in 1935. Aged twenty-one, Kristóf and her husband and four-month-old daughter fled the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Uprising to Austria and were resettled in French-speaking Switzerland. Working in a factory, Kristóf slowly learned the language of her adopted country. Her first novel, The Notebook (1986), won the European Prize for French literature and was translated into forty languages. Kristóf’s other work included plays and stories as well as The Proof (1988) and The Third Lie (1991), which complete the trilogy begun with The Notebook. She died in 2011.

The Illiterate

Literature by Ágota Kristóf

Translated from the French by Nina Bogin

With a contribution by Gabriel Josipovici

Narrated in a series of stark, brief vignettes, The Illiterate is Ágota Kristóf’s memoir of her childhood, her escape from Hungary in 1956 with her husband and small child, her early years working in factories in Switzerland, and the writing of her first novel, The Notebook. Few writers can convey so much in so little space. Fierce yet almost pointedly flat and documentarian in tone, Kristóf portrays with a disturbing level of detail and directness an implacable message of loss: first, she is forced to learn Russian as a child (with the Soviet takeover of Hungary, Russian became obligatory at school); next, at age twenty-one, she finds herself required to learn French to survive: I have spoken French for more than thirty years, I have written in French for twenty years, but I still don’t know it.…
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Her descriptions—of those with whom she escaped and whose sense of isolation eventually leads them back to Hungary even at the cost of their lives, as well as those whose sense of despair brings them to suicide—offer an uncomfortable insight into the extreme vulnerability of those obliged to seek asylum abroad.
—Eimear McBride, Times Literary Supplement
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