George, or Gyorgy, Faludy died at 95 on the first of this last September. Quite a character, even more than this autobiography (some call it an 'autobiographical novel'). This is his classic, now nearly forgotten in the West, account of his early life under first fascist and then communist tyranny, My Happy Days in Hell. He tells here of the period of flight from fascist Hungary in 1938, his escape through a France capitulating to Hitler in turn, and his North African brief but evocatively detailed stay. Roosevelt enables him to gain American asylum. There, he serves in the military and for the Free Hungary Movement. In 1946, compelled by his 'radical liberalism' and democratic socialist principles to help his country, he returns. His account of how life is endured under communist dictatorship is classic. Soon, he is arrested on farcical charges as a Titoist and Yank spy, and sentenced at the AVO secret police's dungeon (the same site had been used by the Nazis and their Arrow Cross sympathizers in WWII, symbolically) to death. Commuted to 25 years, he then goes through two prisons on his way to a labour camp for 1300 intellectuals where he faces slow starvation over the next three years, from 1950-1953. After this book ends with the release of the prisoners in the wake of Stalin's death, he served Hungary again, until he again faced a second exile after the defeat of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. He never shirked a challenge.
In his memoir, he notes that he, like his professorial father, preferred to live outside of Hungary even as he longed for his homeland. Too restrictive for dreamers and idealists, Hungary, with its extraordinarily complicated language and its ethnic distinction from the Slavic and Germanic peoples who surround its great plains, after WWI lost half of its homeland. Isolated in the center of Europe by terrain and language, it sits between East and West, an Asian people who have endured over a millennium at the continental center. This nation commanded Faludy's loyalty yet chafed his cosmopolitan intellect and inquisitive nature. He faced fourteen years in prison for an anti-Hitler poem. He had fled, after its fascist Horthy regime had drafted him in November 1938 into its army, allied with the Nazis. In his late twenties, Faludy was already an acclaimed poet, best known for his translations of another jailbird rascal, the medieval balladeer François Villon.
His obituary revealed his later life to be as exciting as the period, from 1938 to 1953, described in Happy Days. I encourage you to find out more about his fascinating subsequent literary career and love life in and out of Hungary. You will be surprised, I guarantee you.
Reminding myself when I read his obituary how I had always meant to read his autobiography, I hunted down a dog-eared and spine-slanted library copy, the only one in my vast city. The large volume, over 450 small-type pages, showed, at least a few decades ago after its English-language translation (rare from Hungarian in that Kathleen Szasz's 1962 rendering counters sinuously the often jarring transfer from this native language into English; many books from Hungarian flop about like dying fish in their clumsy anglicised gasps), that many readers had preceded me in their journey through the fifteen years that Faludy narrates. If published today, it'd probably reveal more of Faludy's erotic side; curiously, he does not mention in these pages his own Jewish background. Secular and a gadfly, he could submit to no ideal except, and grudgingly, the categorical imperative. It took me a few weeks on and off to finish this long book, but I enjoyed it more by the halfway point, when he returns to the purported People's Republic and exposes its shams. Now, I only wish its sequel published in 2000 was translated.
For readers in today's climate where as always there are only those few who would sacrifice themselves for an ideal against tyranny, Faludy's experiences remind us of how most of us would choose to survive if we were faced with deadly oppression. Perhaps flight lacks the glamour of rebellion, but those who flee live to fight on another day, as the cliché goes. Chapter one opens as he recalls a dinner party given for a British MP in the wake of Munich and appeasement. Faced with the fact that the West would let Hitler do as he pleased, the guests in Budapest lamented their fate. One Catholic poet fervently vows that he will stand up to the Nazis, `even if he had to give his life for Christianity, for social justice and for Hungary's independence.' (11) The MP responds sadly that when Hitler marched in, their heroic poses would accomplish nothing but their arrests and hangings- in secret so as to discourage martyrs. He urges them all to flee. `After the war, however, we could return and serve the ideals for which, today, we would sacrifice ourselves in vain.' (12) The folks at the party, mostly young, ignore the MP; they merely vent and rant against Chamberlain. Two months later, all but the Catholic poet had left Hungary, many for America or England.
Supporting his poetic practice with his work as a left-wing journalist, Faludy had provoked the fascist Arrow Cross. Briefly jailed, refusing to continue to fight in its militia, Faludy escapes to France, where however the Germans conquer and divide that country next. Trapped in Marseilles, he and thousands of refugees seek asylum. He boards a ship. But, spooked, he then disembarks with his first wife. The next day, that ship sinks, blown up by a mine. Along with a colourfully drawn assortment of flim-flam men and women of easy virtue. Faludy seeks asylum in North Africa. The vagaries of diplomatic sovereignty in French and Spanish territories there manage to, as will be dramatised in the film 'Casablanca' a couple of years later, keep Faludy sporadically secure. His limbo allows him excursions amidst the Berber tribesmen. He describes their customs, brutality, and grace through elegantly rendered vignettes. His powers of recall, which appear unbelievable at this stage of his tale-telling, gain credence later when he tells us how in prison he memorised poems he created in his mind- his only way of recording them- and recalled them daily. Incrementally, he added to his retentive storehouse with verse, anecdote, and witness for years on end. His ability to retreat into his intellectual and artistic mnemonics allowed him the chance to endure within himself. There he cultivated the fortitude to survive the slow starvation, of a less than a thousand calories a day, inflicted upon him and his fellow prisoners left in the open, under communist hard labour, sixteen or even twenty hours a day.
Find this gripping account. Although I find somewhat unbelievable its meticulous re-creation of details from these fifteen years, you do learn how he survived and found ironically 'happy days in hell' by his own inner strength, powers of imagination, and command of retention of so many memorable incidents. I could tell much more, but read the book instead. This book deserves a reprint. It's a good companion to find out how the communists took over in the postwar years, and what happened before the 1956 uprising commemorated this past year and documented most recently in Victor Sebestyen's "Twelve Days." (This review edited from a longer article to appear in the Belfast on-line journal The Blanket)