There is a book through which I discovered what kind of a person I really want to be: The Notebook, the first volume of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, which was followed by The Proof and The Third Lie. When I first heard someone talk about Ágota Kristóf, I thought it was an east European mispronunciation of Agatha Christie; but I soon discovered not only that Ágota is not Agatha, but that Ágota’s horror is much more terrifying than Agatha’s.
The Notebook tells the story of young twins living with their grandmother in a small Hungarian town during the last years of the second world war and the early years of communism. The twins are thoroughly immoral – they lie, blackmail, kill – yet they stand for authentic ethical naivety at its purest. A couple of examples should suffice. One day they meet a starving deserter in a forest and bring him some things he asks them for.
When we come back with the food and blanket, he says: ‘You’re very kind.’
We say: ‘We weren’t trying to be kind. We’ve brought you these things because you absolutely need them. That’s all.’
If there ever was a Christian ethical stance, this is it: no matter how weird their neighbour’s demands, the twins naively try to meet them. One night, they find themselves sleeping in the same bed as a German officer, a tormented gay masochist. Early in the morning, they awaken and want to leave the bed, but the officer holds them back:
‘Don’t move. Keep sleeping.’
‘We want to urinate. We have to go.’
‘Don’t go. Do it here.’
We ask: ‘Where?’
He says: ‘On me. Yes. Don’t be afraid. Piss! On my face.’
We do it, then we go out into the garden, because the bed is all wet.
A true work of love, if there ever was one!
[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on August 12th 2013.]