Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I've read a short story titled "Notebook" by Agoto Kristof (1935-), a Hungarian writer. It was a Japanese translation. The book was originally written in 1986 in French with the title “Le Grand Cahier”, translated as the big notebook.

At first, I mistook her name as Agatha Christie. Agoto Kristof received the European prize for French literature for "Notebook" the year it was printed, won the 2001 Gottfried Kellear Award in Switzerland and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2008. A sudden arrival of a star writer!

The book is now translated into more than 30 languages. The Japanese edition is titled "A Diary of Mischievous Boys" and I thought it was a good title after I’ve read it. I looked up its Spanish edition and lo and behold, it is titled “Claus and Lucas”. There were no such names in the book. They were simply referred to as “we.” I wondered how they got the names. I found out that the book had two sequels, making up a trilogy. It seems those names were introduced in the sequels.

The book dealt with a twin brother left with their “grandma” in the country by their mother during World War II. Their father was sent to the front as a war correspondent. Grandma, widowed and living alone, illiterate and filthy, had farms and livestock to care for. “I’ll put you to work, so don’t fret. Food isn’t free here either.” She was harsh and merciless to the twins. Here the twins learned life’s most precious skills for survival – to lie, steal, fight, beg and blackmail, but most of all, endure.

I compared the "Notebook" story to Seita (14-years old) and Setsuko (4-years old), a brother and sister story of The Grave of the Fireflies by Akiyuki Nosaka (1930-) which I introduced in an earlier blog post. Their father was drafted into the navy when the war started. When Kobe was bombed, they lost their mother and home. They were taken care of by their mother’s cousin, but after the war ended, they chose to live by themselves rather than being mistreated and uncomfortable. They lived in a cave used for a bomb shelter but they didn’t know how to get food. Setsuko died first, Seita next. They were honest and naive, weak and inexperienced.

I understand Nosaka wrote the story from his own experience. It was similar with Agoto, who later published her autobiographical story. Agoto was invited to Japan to speak in 1995, the year I returned to Japan from the U.S. Her speech in Japan was transcribed as “Illiterate", her autobiography.

She was born in Csikvand, western Hungary, near Csorna or Gyor, midpoint between Budapest and Vienna. Her mother’s native tongue was Hungarian, but as the war progressed, she fled close to the Austro-Hungarian border and spoke German. Then everyone had to learn Russian under their rule but she wrote she and her teachers all sabotaged in protest. She fled to Austria with her baby, and at each stop she begged in German for milk for her baby. Eventually she settled in Switzerland and started learning French at the age of 25. She thought she was totally illiterate in French. Even now, she cannot speak and write as a French native, but does the best she can. She was very happy when she was welcomed in Japan. Many Japanese have been inspired to learn and write French because of her.

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