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. I don’t speak it without mistakes, and I can only write it with the help of dictionaries, which I frequently consult. It is for this reason that I also call the French language an enemy language. There is a further reason, the most serious of all: this language is killing my mother tongue.
Kristóf’s sentences are like skeletons, commemorations of indescribable sadness that have been meticulously scrubbed of gore and gristle. She seems to sculpt her stories by omission, the great unspoken throughout her books being Hungarian. One might think of Kristóf’s fiction as an act of recuperation, an expression of loss that preserves loss in the form. The brevity of The Illiterate alone tells you that this is not her whole story. It is simply the one she tells.
— Jennifer Krasinski, The New Yorker
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
The recent American publication of The Illiterate, Kristóf’s slim memoir...is a revelation and provocation, connecting her hard-won literary success to her life of exile and the scarring loss of her native tongue...The limitations of her second language became her work’s most striking virtue. By not writing in her native tongue, she produced some of the most indelible fiction about the Hungarian soul.
— Ed Park, The New York Review of Books
For Kristóf, fiction is the only thing that might provide an escape from solitude... Her novels likewise lead to an engagement with the world. They open things up because of how they undermine what we consider to be true; they shatter a supposed unity. Kristóf’s writing shows us both the pleasure and the necessity of literary refraction.