The Third Lie

Kate Moses reviews Agota Kristof's novel "The Third Lie".

Published May 1, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Third Lie" completes Hungarian-born Kristof's trilogy of strange, bleak novels, each more stark and depressing than the last. "I am in prison in the small town of my childhood," the narrator, Claus T., tells us in the first sentence, thus illuminating the cryptic, final pages of Kristof's last book, "The Proof." In that novel, the 50-year-old Claus returned to the unnamed European country of his youth in search of his twin brother Lucas, of whom no records exist.

Jailed for allowing his visa to expire, Claus awaits his escort back across the border and muses on his past: a mysterious malady that kept him hospitalized and separated from his family for most of his boyhood; the brutality of the war years spent living with a foul harridan of a grandmother; and his grief over the absence of his brother, who disappeared without a trace after crossing the border into the neighboring country at the age of 15. What strikes the reader like a blow to the head is Claus' confession that "All this is a lie. . . . I only fantasized there were two of us, me and my brother, in order to endure the unbearable solitude." "Claus," it seems, is really Lucas, and more confusingly, Lucas hasn't seen his real twin, Klaus, since the boys were four years old. It was then that their mother shot and killed their philandering father before their eyes, wounding Lucas inadvertently.

What began in the trilogy's earlier books as a deep and brutal parable of shifting morality, political hypocrisy and modern horror embodied by twin boys abandoned during wartime has, in "The Third Lie," become an impossibly tangled family melodrama. Kristof has left a big pile of loose ends in this book, some of which she bafflingly carries forward from the earlier two: incestuous romances, "twinned" minor characters, unrevealed manuscripts, buried treasures, inconsequential lies -- none of which are explained. Equally frustrating is that "The Third Lie," by jettisoning the painfully compelling narratives that preceded it, renders meaningless the first two volumes of this trilogy. Set within its trilogy context, the book makes no sense; stripped of that context, "The Third Lie" is simply trite.

By Kate Moses

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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