cover image of the book The Illiterate

A tiny jewel of a book.

Kirkus Reviews

In 2004, late in her legendary career, Ágota Kristóf wrote this slim dagger of a memoir about being a refugee after fleeing Hungary in 1956

The Illiterate

Literatureby Ágota Kristóf

Translated from 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. 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.

Paperback(published April 4, 2023)

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Ágota Kristóf

Hungarian writer

A tiny jewel of a book.

Kirkus Reviews

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