6 March 2014

Agota Kristof: Le Troisième mensonge |The Third Lie (1991)

This, then, is Le Troisième mensonge (The Third Lie), the third volume of La Trilogie des jumelles (The Twins Trilogy), and it changes a great number of things. I'd begun to wonder if there were any hard-fast truths to the books, as there seemed to be so many 'lies', so much unreliable narration.

And that is one thing that's true: a lot has been unreliable, and although this doesn't stop in the final volume, all becomes clear in the end. However, if La Preuve began to set my head turning, this one made me feel on several occasions as if it were being kicked like a football. Because of its many mind-boggling twists, I can easily understand a number of people just giving up on this volume – or far more likely just skimming through it and missing vital details – but careful reading really does pay off.

So the second volume ended with Claus in prison, although it's really just a police cell where he's being held until he can be sent back home. And through the lies that have come before we begin to see how the notebook to a certain extent fed on reality but often changed it, moulding it to a different shape. And we're in for a number of surprises, shocks even, of which I can only give an indication of the main ones.

Unlike the first two books in the trilogy – which are told in the first person plural and third person respectively – Le Troisième mensonge is told in the first person singular. As a child Claus spent some years in hospital recovering from a war injury and when he got better was sent to live with an old woman who wasn't his grandmother at all, and he had no brother there and had no idea where he was. The man who died crossing the border before him was a deserter, not his father, and once over the border he meets Peter (depicted as a very discreet homosexual in La Preuve) who is living with his wife Clara (Lucas's lover in the second book).

It is over the border that Lucas decides to call himself Claus, and where he lives for many years before deciding to return to the country of his birth. There are dream sequences in Lucas's story, and it seems as though my suspicions were right about Claus and Lucas being the same person (just an anagram), as Lucas here (who's called Claus of course) doesn't believe he has a brother, thinks he's just created him in his dreams.

Le Troisième mensonge is in two parts and begins normally enough in the first person, although the second part seems to begin in a dream sequence: but the difficulty is the staggering revelation that the first person narrator of this half is the poet Klaus [sic] Lucas, whom Lucas (aka Claus) correctly thinks is his brother. Lucas is spending his last hours in the capital of the country, and he rings up Klaus and goes to his house with his passport (which calls him Claus of course) although Klaus (whose mad mother is in the house in bed) refuses to recognise him. So Lucas goes away bitterly disappointed.

The truth of the matter is that the brothers were separated by 'la chose' ('the thing') at the age of four. We learned in the highly unreliable first book that Grand-Mère killed her husband – twice-married Kristof hated marriage, but that's another story – but in fact it was Mère who killed her adulterous husband, whose forename was incidentally Klaus-Lucas and the twins were named after him. For some years while Mère was in a psychiatric hospital Klaus was brought up by Antonia, his father's lover, his younger half-sister Sarah living there too.

One day when Klaus is back at Mère's, where he has lived from the age of eleven up to the end – he never married as he only ever loved Sarah, but of course that would have led to incest – the ambassador tells him that Lucas has thrown himself in front of a train and had requested to be buried with his family. Klaus thinks it would be churlish not to allow Lucas this last wish, even though he doesn't recognise him as a brother, so OK he can be buried there. And he thinks that when Mère dies, jumping in front of a train will make as good a death as any for himself: he'll no longer have any reason for living.

Amazingly, Agota Kristof had no intention after the first book to write a second, or after the second a third, but they fit together ingeniously and I'm not surprised that they've been published in French and English in one volume – the first two may stand on their own, but I don't really see how a reader could get a great deal from reading the third without the others.

But Le Troisième mensonge is far and away the most complex and the most challenging, it's a wonderful book that beautifully completes the trilogy. And although I may well come to change my mind, at the moment it feels that taken together these three books are among the most absorbing reads I've ever come across. And that's saying something.

My other posts on Agota Kristof:

Agota Kristof: La Preuve | The Proof
Agota Kristof: Le Grand cahier | The Big Notebook
Agota Kristof: C'est égal: nouvelles

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