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I read. It’s like a disease

April 21, 2012 18 comments

L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. 2004. Not translated into English but really easy to read in French. The title means The Illiterate.

Je lis. C’est comme une maladie. Je lis tout ce qui me tombe sous la main, sous les yeux. Journaux, livres d’école, affiches, bouts de papiers trouvés dans la rue, recettes de cuisine, livres d’enfants, tout ce qui est imprimé. J’ai quatre ans et la guerre vient de commencer. I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes into my hands, everything within eyesight. Newspapers, text books, posters, pieces of paper found in the street, recipes, children books, any printed thing. I’m four and the war has just begun.

This is the start of L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. I can’t tell you whether it’s a paragraph or just a few sentences as I borrowed the audio book from the library. It’s only fifty minutes long and it’s read by the actress Marthe Keller. I can relate to that first quote. I remember how I was impatient to learn how to read, how I wanted to read and like her, I used to read everything I could. L’analphabète is a short text in which Agota Kristof narrates her relationship with writing and reading. She was born in a poor village in Hungary in 1935 and she says she always loved reading and inventing stories.

After the war, she attended a boarding school for destitute girls and she started earning money by writing and playing sketches for the other students. She was so poor that she had to fake illness when her shoes were at the cobbler’s because she didn’t have another pair to walk to school.

Then she fasts forward and she’s twenty-one, fleeing Hungary through the mountains with her four-month-old daughter and her husband. They cross the border from Hungary to Austria. She relates the journey from Austria to Switzerland, the fresh start in a new country and how she became a writer. Two things struck me in her book, the behaviour of Austrian and Swiss populations and her simple but deep relationship with books.

The Austrian villagers welcomed the refugees and helped them reach Switzerland. They gave them food, shelter and train tickets. Everything was under control, they knew the process. She describes how the Swiss were waiting for them at the train station, offering tea and coffee. As refugees, the Swiss first brought them to special homes. Then they dispatched them in different cities and helped them find an apartment, a job in a factory. She remembers the controller in the bus, sitting by her and telling her she shouldn’t be afraid, that the Russian tanks wouldn’t come to Switzerland. That kindness struck me and it struck me that it struck me. I thought “What? We, Europeans, didn’t always treat illegal immigrants the way we do now? When did we start treating refugees as criminals?” I thought about Lampedusa and its sad reputation as the destination to escape misery. And I thought about what the candidates who run for the French presidential election say or avoid saying about immigration.

I was also really moved when Agota Kristof tells her need to read and write and also her relationship with other languages. There’s a chapter entitled Langues ennemies (Enemy languages). It tells her first encounter with a foreign language when she and her parents moved to a German speaking part of Hungary. German, the language of the former dominating empire, Austria. Then Russian is the language imposed by the new communist regime. It’s an enemy that kills Hungarian culture and smothers the cultural life. Then comes the French, the language imposed by fate when she finds solace in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Agota Kristof explains she became illiterate, living in a country whose language she couldn’t speak, cut out from the society because of the language barrier and living through a long cultural desert. She depicts how she eventually managed to speak French but still couldn’t read or write. It lasted six years until she went back to school and learnt how to read and write. She was delighted to read again and overwhelmed by the new reading possibilities, all the foreign books available in French. I don’t know how I would cope with a situation like that: no book during five years except for the rare ones she could find in Hungarian from the Geneva library. Five years without reading anything new, without understanding newspapers, cereal boxes or administrative correspondence. I can’t imagine it. The French is also an enemy language for her because it slowly kills her native language in her and because it’s a constant fight to speak it and write it properly. Even after thirty years, she still needs a dictionary. It has imposed itself as her writing language but not without collateral damages for her Hungarian self.

This book is written without pathos. Its tone is factual, descriptive but the absence of expansive feelings doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t feel strongly for her. Marthe Keller chose to read it with a foreign accent and it enforced the impression of listening to Agota Kristof herself. I listened to it twice and the second time, I finished it in my car, after a working day. When I started the engine, I was stressed by the accumulation of the tiny details of a whole working day. Deadlines to be met, suspicion of incompetence from someone I need to rely on, fear to disappoint. Then Agota Kristof’s literary voice invaded the small space in the car and erased my worries. They seemed so futile compared to what she was telling. Again, it’s a simple description without complaining but I felt compassion for her, awe for her perseverance, her ability to face difficult times. And my problems shrinked back into their appropriate size and kept the right proportion. I owe her one.

Alas, it’s not translated into English…It’s available in German (Die Analphabetin: Autobiographische Erzählung) and if you know French, you can probably read it in the original, it’s not very difficult and it’s short.

PS: I think the cover of the French edition is irrelevant.

Update in 2017: It’s been released in English in 2014. The title is The Illiterate.

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