The Illiterate by Ágota Kristóf, translated by Nina Bogin

My husband makes fun of me for being drawn to short/small books on the new-books shelves at the library, but I don’t know, I appreciate concision, and I loved this very brief memoir from its very start. The back cover of the edition I read said this book is “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,” and it is all of those things, but it is also, as Helen Oyeyemi puts it in her introduction, a book about how Kristóf “found herself sorely pressed by the necessity of decoding an environment that forced her sense of self into strange new shapes.” It’s a memoir, above all, of Kristóf’s life as a reader and a writer, and the disorientation of going from being a reader and writer in her native Hungarian to ending up in a place where she initially couldn’t speak or read or write the language (French) at all.

Oyeyemi also poses a question to readers, in the introduction: “Do you remember much about your preliterate time?” I don’t remember mine at all: when I was three, my mom became aware that I knew how to read because I said something that I read off a chalkboard or a sign or something at a restaurant. She wrote words on a napkin and I read those, too. I have no recollection of this; for all of my life that I can remember, I have known how to read, and I have read a lot. I smiled at Kristóf’s first sentences, describing herself at age four: “I read. It is like a disease. I read everything that comes to hand, everything that meets my glance: newspapers, schoolbooks, posters, bits of paper found on the street, recipes, children’s books. Everything in print.” She writes about her father being a teacher, about his classroom as a sanctuary of quiet in contrast to the chaos of her mother’s kitchen: “My father’s classroom smells of chalk, ink, paper, calm, silence and snow, even in summer.” She writes about telling stories, then about writing poems and plays; we get glimpses, but only glimpses, of the larger world and of her family life—her relationship with her two brothers, with her parents, with her grandparents.

For such a short book, there are a lot of moments of rupture, some of which are linguistic as well as more general: a move to a different city where German is spoken as well as Hungarian, a painful separation from home and family at boarding school, the moment when “the Russian language became obligatory at school and all other foreign languages were forbidden,” and then the largest rupture, leaving Hungary on foot as a refugee and eventually ending up in Switzerland, in Valangin, where language is sometimes a problem even at home, with Kristóf’s daughter not understanding the Hungarian Kristóf speaks to her, and Kristóf not understanding her daughter’s French.

I read this over the course of a single evening—it’s only 68 pages—and am thoroughly glad that I spotted this at the library. I hadn’t heard of Kristóf before this, but now I want to read her novels as well.






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